Mark Halperin of Time magazine has another report card for the third GOP debate last night:
John McCain A-
Solid, straight-talking and relaxed, in the assertive mode of what-you-see-is-what-you'll -get-if-I'm-president. Gave perhaps his best debate answer of the cycle to a woman whose brother was killed in Iraq — passion, patriotism, poise, and personality all in one response. Commanded the stage on the war several other times, and finished strong. Yet with no other debates scheduled in the near future, he passed up a chance to call out Romney on the governor's failure to offer his own detailed immigration plan, instead tweaking Giuliani on a minor immigration point. Held it together — if only just — on camera cutaways that showed his irritable reactions to Romney and Giuliani.
Rudy Giuliani B+
Leveraged his assigned position in the center of the stage to claim alpha male status. Visually supported with a tidy pair of eye glasses, he appeared polished, calm and thoughtful on hypotheticals about Iran and other weighty matters. Smoothly handled a tense face-off and what seemed to be a jarring genuine lightning strike when discussing criticism from a Rhode Island Catholic bishop on his abortion views (although the dramatic video may come back to haunt him with conservative Republicans). Bottom line: Every day his liberal social positions and record don't knock him out of the race is a day closer to the nomination.
Mitt Romney B
Not too hot, not too cold, but more beta male than Goldilocks, despite his golden tan. Often blended in with the lower tiers rather than solidifying his position as rising-star-to-be-reckoned-with. Initially avoided the chance to lash out at his "friend" McCain when asked about the Arizona Senator's immigration bill, although he eventually worked in a reference to the "Kennedy-McCain" bill late in the debate. Continued to develop his explanation and defense of his Mormon faith, with a well rehearsed answer and a positive tone (which should help if he ever officially gives his version of the JFK-as-American-Catholic speech). On several occasions the camera caught him showing uncharacteristic and pronounced frustration (or something) while his competitors monopolized the microphone.
Mike Huckabee B-
Proved again that if he had thirty million dollars in the bank, he might be able to make a run at the lead dogs. Personified the folksy man of faith that has intrigued some bloggers. Stood his ground in a base-friendly way on gays and God. Opening joke asking the nation to give a chance to another son of Hope, Arkansas was perhaps the best pure comedy moment of the night. Reality: his long-shot prospects to be a player did not measurably increase, but he probably won a few more fans.
Duncan Hunter C+
The debate started off smack dab on his pet issues — defense and immigration — but, despite some confident answers, Hunter was still unable to elevate himself above the second-tier. In his own gruff way, and with a graceful reference to his own son, a Marine currently serving in Afghanistan, he did a decent job comforting a citizen-questioner whose brother was killed in Iraq. Then, with a sense of timing only Pete Best could love, he waited until the waning moments of the session to lash out at the Big 3 candidates for being tied to Ted Kennedy.
Tom Tancredo C
Capably took advantage of the frequent opportunities to address immigration, his signature issue, although he nevertheless failed to own the topic. Still, did his best job yet of staying on message. Boldly and bravely announced that George W. Bush would not be welcome in a Tancredo White House. (Until now, it has been acceptable to sidestep or critique the president, but verboten to forcefully trash him.) If the Republican Party turns in full against the incumbent over the next sixth months, Tancredo's march to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will have started at this moment.
Sam Brownback C-
The guy once thought of as the potential "true conservative" in the race lurched through this debate without a consistent message. His upbeat mention of an Iranian bus drivers' strike probably did not rouse the spirits of as many GOPers as his frontal assault on former president Clinton. His soft positions on Iraq and immigration left him seeming blurry on the two biggest issues of the day. Small consolation, but he still appeared more dignified than several other members of the Little 7.
Ron Paul C-
Toned down his style and cadence, but not to his benefit. The stark and crisp anti-Iraq war message he delivered at the top of the evening drew ample applause, but his on-stage presence faded as the debate wore on. Channeled Ralph Nader on the role of the oil companies in America's military ambitions. His tentative, all-over-the-map performance likely won't move the cyberspace or contribution needles as much in the first two debates, when he gathered a hardy little band of supporters.
Jim Gilmore D+
Still grim, still message-less, still (apparently) trying to convince people he was indeed once the governor of Virginia. Got a softball question about Fred Thompson and weakly fouled it off. Did nothing to stand out or increase his chances of being the 44th president of the United States, or even elevate his national profile.
Tommy Thompson D-
No aspirant has faced as much hostility and skepticism about his candidacy from his home state press corps than the former governor of Wisconsin. From his leaden joke about George W. Bush as a theoretical UN ambassador to his stiff clowning about homonymic Fred Thompson, to just about everything else that came out of his mouth, he provided plenty of fodder for the Badger ridicule to continue apace. Finally received the health care question he was waiting for and did exactly nothing with it.