Mitt Romney = B+
Once again, he came off as the Michael Bluth of the debates -- a guy whose primary talent is competence amid a cast of candidates with considerable debate dysfunction.
But like Bluth, he was dragged down last night from time-to-time, and had a few bad moments.
First, he should've never put his hand on Perry in the debate. It was uncomfortably aggressive, and instead of looking commanding, it seemed condescending and, worse, like he was threatened and flustered.
Second, he had some long fights, filled with interruptions. These things are hard, I know. You can't let accusations go unchallenged, and you have to show strength. But like thousand year sayings from every culture, sometimes you show strength by silence.
Still, he was nearly flawless on the substance of his counter-punches, weaved his arguments in-and-out of the congestion of the free-flowing debate, and seemed ready for Putin. That's a key test.
Rick Perry = D
He struggled defending freedom of religion, running out of thoughts on it after a few sentences, and just repeating "freedom" and "religion" to fill the time. That's like flubbing a Mother's Day card.
He kept coming back to Romney hiring "illegals" and prosecuted his war on Romney's lawn care company like it was Watergate or, well, RomneyCare.
Why he focused on lawn care like it was RomneyCare, I can't tell you, except that it tells you something about Perry: he gets a little lost in these debates and confuses a massive top-down government health care program with 9:00 AM grass-cutting on Saturday that wakes you up.
I'm as surprised by this as the next not-from-Texas person.
I followed his race with Kay Bailey Hutchison fairly closely, and he showed an ability to isolate an opponent's most profound weakness, pound away at it, and win. He was also terrifically tapped into what voters wanted and cared about it. And yes, he always seemed preening, cocky, and brash, but not without cause.
I still think he'll probably emerge as the clear anti-Romney, but I'm less sure after last night. He never gets better in these debates, even though he has everything riding on them.
Sure, he has a $15 million dollar war chest, but Perry still doesn't seem ready for prime-time. Or late-night. Or really anytime. With all that money, he can buy time on TV, but it will probably come up as "paid programming" on your TV guide and might be about a bug catcher that used to be $99.99, but is now $24.95 if you call now.
Herman Cain = C
Here's a sign of how unserious he is about this running for president thing (beyond book tours, campaigning in Tennessee, and probably training for a 42K marathon, of course).
When the others lob serious critiques of his 9-9-9 plan, he has the bad habit of either simply saying their analysis is incorrect or referring them to his web page for an answer. And then, when he actually answers the question in the debate, it sounds like he's at a farmer's market with all the "apples and oranges" metaphors.
Simplicity is supposed to be part of his appeal, but the Amish don't run for president, and you wouldn't let them under your car's hood.
By the way, can you imagine what these debates would've been like if Trump had jumped in the race now and caught fire with the tea party? The first ten minutes would've been all about whether we should seize Iraq's oil fields with our military and take all the goods for free.
Cain also sort of disappeared last night after the raucous opening when 9-9-9 was on the stand.
Both he and Perry's tendency to fade in the second half of debates opens questions about their interest in actually becoming president, and if not that, their ability to prosecute the case.
Having said all that, a ton of people think Cain is amazing, and he has an undeniable appeal that I've never been able to clearly identify -- sort of like The Hangover.
Since I've been out-of-step predicting the Cain Train, I'm totally unqualified to say how this might affect his polling, but it'll be fascinating to see how long 9-9-9 holds up.
Ron Paul = B
I give him a 'B' every time, and he's the same every time, so he gets a B for last night.
As always, his free thinking is admirable, and it would be nice to not have to put our belts and laptop computers in separate bins, but the reality is that most of what he says will probably get no further than him saying it.
Newt Gingrich = B
He'd have an easy A, if not for the uneasy smirk, and the continual condescension toward everyone and everything (on that note: he doesn't attack like the others and is the most positive about his rivals, but still seems condescending to them. Hard to figure out that dynamic).
Gingrich had what's become his reliable crowd-pleasers. Monologue ripping super-committees. Check. Media-bashing. Check. Lincoln/Douglas references. Check.
The most interesting moment came when he admitted he'd once favored the individual mandate. Up until that point in the debate, he was effectively punching Romney on RomneyCare, but once Mitt got him to fess up to the mandate, Newt's stomach for the fight faded.
Still, he always does well in these things, and his upward climb will probably continue, but there's one thing you can always depend upon: Newt always self-destructs right when it seems he's finally in a groove.
Rick Santorum = B-
Santorum tends to be the umbilical cord cutter of the debates -- what he does is necessary, but it's messy.
He's more interested in interpreting others' visions than his own.
The prophet Daniel has the monopoly on that, so Santorum would be well-served to turn positive and give people a reason to really connect with him, rather than just disconnecting with his opponents.
The big question is whether Santorum can become the next guy to break out and move up in the polls as the nomadic tea partiers' new choice. I don't think he can. He frequently slams states' rights, talks a great deal about collective morality, and has some big government votes in his past (like his nod for Bush's prescription drug measure).
Michele Bachmann = C+
She's trying to distinguish herself as the anti-ObamaCare candidate, but each of the candidates is so thoroughly invested in defeating it (at least, rhetorically) that it's becoming very hard to stand out.
Her riff on foreclosures was passionate, though, and connected, but I don't think it will be enough to attract bundlers, build organization, hand her Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and win Ed Rollins' affections back.