This evening commenced with a warning from CNN moderator John King. Tonight's forum, he vowed, "would be different than any presidential debate you've ever seen." Uh-oh. I hate it when journalists say things like that—it always means there will be lame gimmicks, such as having random voters we don't care about waste TV time with dull questions, or a demand that the candidates introduce themselves to an audience of millions using only a single sentence. Just one candidate on stage bothered to follow that stupid rule: Newt Gingrich. The famously undisciplined former House speaker actually showed some discipline. The rest of the candidates said whatever trivialities popped into their heads. (My favorite by far was Governor Tim Pawlenty, who began his ramble with this revelation: "I'm a husband." He followed up seconds later with, "I'm a neighbor.")
That said, for the first time this year I looked at the candidates on stage and thought that they actually were not that bad. Each looked like people who could plausibly stand next to President Obama on the national stage (well, except for Ron Paul.) I don't know what happened. Maybe my standards are now rock bottom, or maybe Gary Johnson was the problem after all. Note to Governors Rick Perry and Chris Christie: The voters may not pine for you much longer.
So before Frank Luntz and his traveling circus of alleged voters tell us who we are supposed to think won the debate, a few thoughts:
Mitt Romney: Tonight the Rombot was programmed to be Mr. Nice Guy, and as usual performed his mission with mechanical efficiency. He was generous to others on stage, polite, relaxed, respectful. He even tried to crack a few jokes; each predictably fell flat. Still, one longs to give him credit for trying to evolve beyond his original programming—the "Commander Data" of the GOP race. In fact for the first time since I first laid eyes on him in 2008, I found myself thinking I could actually live with Mitt Romney on my TV screen for four years. Romney also gets points for being the only person on stage who bothered to (mildly) challenge CNN's foolish "sum-up-major-issues-in-60-seconds-or-John-King-will-yell-at-you" time limits. Grade: A
Newt Gingrich: He is never going to be confused for Andy Griffith, but the former speaker came across as a serious person who knew a few things. Considering the disasters of the past few weeks, that alone was an achievement (though Romney seemed to be keeping himself from laughing whenever Newt was speaking. Maybe the governor has just seen this: It was either gutsy or insane for Newt to dive back into the Ryan mess that almost wrecked his campaign. He seemed to survive it tonight, but it would have been far smarter to offer a self-deprecating joke about all the fuss. That Gingrich seems incapable of making light of himself—or of anything for that matter—is a problem. Grade: A-
Michele Bachmann: She looked and sounded different from everyone else on stage, and in this case that's almost certainly a good thing. She offered "announcements": that she was in the race, that Obama would be a one-term president. She was articulate, and she was the only one who managed to execute one-liners without seeming like she had memorized them on a cue card just before the debate began. I wish she didn't use words like "awesome" and she reminded us once too often that she raised 23 foster children. But all things considered, not a bad debut. Grade: A-
Herman Cain: For the first time, he seemed to acknowledge that there is something aberrant about his candidacy. He tried the Ross Perot-like "I'm not a politician" line, but never seemed to build a coherent message for why that matters. Still, he seemed knowledgeable and earnest, tried to be folksy, and didn't embarrass himself next to far more seasoned politicos. Well, except when using the word "druthers," stumbling over some saying from his grandmother, or talking about Muslims. Maybe some insta-poll will say he won this debate like the last one, but I can't see why. Grade: B
Tim Pawlenty: I can't really remember much of what he said, and that could be a problem. Still I have a vague sense that he got better as he went along. I didn't know he belonged to a union. Grade: B-
Ron Paul: Sometimes I feel like he is reciting the exact same answer to whatever question he is asked, and no one is bothering to check the tape. He was exactly who he is, and that works for his supporters. But he made no strides toward the nomination. Grade: B-
Rick Santorum: Talked so much about how much experience he has that it started to get grating. Otherwise nothing he said seemed to help him emerge from the pack. Asked if he preferred Leno or Conan, the youngish former senator apparently hadn't a clue who either of them was. Well, that dooms him. Grade: C Update: Santorum, after thinking it over, picks Leno. Just as I suspected. New grade: D
That guy from Utah: Should have been on stage. Already he is promising to be the "New Coke" of 2012. Grade: Incomplete.
CNN's John King: He was so annoying and such a badgering presence on stage that I wondered if he was running for president too. "I'm being polite so far," he kept saying, as he interrupted participants or chided them for daring to spend as much as 90 seconds to answer complicated questions. Instead he was just plain rude, applying time limits to everyone on stage (except himself). After the ridiculous popular culture questions that he threw at the candidates before each commercial break—one of them was "Dancing with the Stars" or "American Idol"—I was disappointed he didn't ask Ron Paul, "boxers or briefs?" Where is Brian Lamb when you need him? Grade: F