Politics & Policy

Who Won the First GOP Presidential Debate?

From best to worst.

Mitt Romney won Thursday night’s debate by every objective standard of style and substance. First, the style: At six-feet-two-inches tall with perfect hair and impeccable tailoring, Romney was Ronald Reagan incarnate. Romney was George Clooney/George Hamilton cool (complete with the tan) surrounded by a dorm-room full of average dudes. Whether it was Romney’s genial laugh, his upbeat persona, his non-arrogant confidence, or his complete mastery of head, body, and hand motion, he couldn’t have been more at ease if he were attending a backyard family barbecue.

Regarding substance, Romney appeared to be the smartest kid in the class without sounding cocky. He rattled off more foreign-sounding names in six minutes than George Bush has in six years.

When asked a tough, negative question on why he has been running away from his own health-care record, Romney gave a textbook example of great political message control. Rather than answering the question of “Why are you ashamed of your health-care record?” Romney repositioned the question to “Can you tell us how you feel about your health-care accomplishments?” Obviously that was an easier question and he hit it out of the ball park.

Romney’s only major stumble was his ridiculous description of his conversion to the pro-life camp a mere two years ago because of advances in cloning. Nonetheless, Republicans who have looking for the temperamental and physical and (to some extent) the philosophical heir to Ronald Reagan since 1988 may have finally found the answer to their dreams.

Rudy Giuliani is a great public speaker and a skillful media communicator, but sharing the stage with nine other men is not something that suits the former New York City mayor’s temperament. While Giuliani was forcefully and articulate through much of the night, he had to spend an inordinate amount of his time defending his outlier views on abortion and the role of the Christian Right in politics.

His answer regarding the subtleties of various Muslim factions was technically correct, but he seemed uncharacteristically unsure of himself.

Giuliani had made a name for himself by standing up to terrorists, but he is too promiscuous with the word “hate” when it comes to his supposed distaste for abortion. When he talks about how much he “hates” abortion he just sounds mean and disingenuous (especially since he favored taxpayer-funded abortions).

John McCain gave a very mixed performance. At times he was energetic and showed glimpses of his old self — the one that made him the darling of the mainstream-media establishment. He had spunk, humor, and a no B.S.- attitude. But at times he seemed just angry, defensive, bitter, and annoyed that people didn’t agree with him on the war.

McCain’s voice was also uncharacteristically shaky in the beginning, but he seemed more confident as the as the night wore on.

Mike Huckabee was the standout among the seven second-tier candidates. He looks like actor Kevin Spacey’s older brother and was able to demonstrate the quick wit he has honed after years on The Daily Show/Bill Maher comedy/news/talk circuit. Huckabee got the best laugh line of the night with his pledge to let Governor Arnold run for president by saying, “after eight years as president, I’d be happy to change the Constitution.”

Huckabee also showed he wasn’t afraid to offer new and different approaches by sounding pro-worker populist themes against well-paid CEOs. He was consistently funny, intelligent, and thorough in his answers — but he didn’t delivery any lines that defined the evening.

Ron Paul has the unfortunate distinction of looking and sounding wacky and impish, even when he says entirely reasonable things. He brilliantly and succinctly positioned his opposition to the current war within the context of Eisenhower getting us out of Korea, Nixon having a plan to get us out of Vietnam and Bush vowing not to start “nation-building” (in the 2000 campaign) that must have left a lot of Republican viewers thinking “this guy makes a lot of sense.”

Unfortunately for Paul, he looks like a combination of My Favorite Martian’s Ray Walston and a comedian who habitually ran for president, Pat Paulsen; not helpful.

Sam Brownback seems like a nice man. In fact, he reminds me of my third-grade Sunday School teacher. Unfortunately, Brownback seems as presidential as my third-grade Sunday School teacher.

Tommy Thompson looks like Sam the butcher from the old Brady Bunch series. I’m sorry, but this just isn’t a face the American people are going to look at every night on their TVs for the next four or eight years.

Thompson seems at times stiff, frozen, bored, glum, and boring. He may have been a dynamic welfare-reforming governor, but he sounds like a mid-level bureaucrat at the Department of Health & Human Services he used to head. He’s not ready for prime time.

Jim Gilmore is a conservative southern governor. Sounds like a promising candidate right? Wrong. Gilmore didn’t embarrass himself, but he couldn’t have been more ordinary if he pulled a canned rotary speech off the floor and read it with one eye closed.

Duncan Hunter proves once again that the American people are savvy time savers by not giving serious presidential consideration to mere congressmen.

Tom Tancredo: See notes on Duncan Hunter.

T. J. Walker executive producer of The Speaking Channel , is author of Presentation Training A-Z.

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