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August 12th, 2011

Presidential Debate Winners and Losers

The GOP Presidential debate in Ames was one of the feistiest in recent memory.  There were several verbal sparring matches and the Fox News moderators grilled all the candidates on previous stances and statements.  It made for a fascinating two hours and set the stage for a climactic Ames Straw Poll on Saturday. live blogged the event last night, which you can view by clicking here.

TIR’s Craig Robinson and Kevin Hall breakdown how each candidate fared and pick the debate winners and losers:

(Kevin) Michele Bachmann:  She entered the debate as the Iowa frontrunner, due mainly to her performance in the New Hampshire debate two months ago.  Bachmann’s failed to follow-up on that success.  Tim Pawlenty went on the attack and was able to poke some holes in Bachmann’s record and rhetoric.

She was not the aggressor this time and seemed less poised than the previous debate.  Instead of criticizing Mitt Romney, which she needed to do, Bachmann spent a great deal of time fending off Pawlenty and Rick Santorum, who are both way behind her in the polls.  She failed to solidify her frontrunner status, so it was not a good night for Michele Bachmann.

(Craig) Michele Bachmann:  Bachmann had the most to lose of anybody last night.  She got a bit banged up, but survived it pretty well.  However, she couldn’t match her stellar performance from the CNN debate.  Bachmann was like a ship in harbor.  She took shots from Pawlenty and Santorum, and so was limited in her ability to go on the offensive.

Her tussle with Pawlenty was entertaining, but it also made people uncomfortable.  The exchange was too personal, and as the Iowa frontrunner, getting in a mudslinging contest is something you want avoid.  The attacks by Pawlenty probably galvanized her supporters, but the attacks from Santorum may peel some social conservatives away from her.  Bachmann was obviously treated like the Iowa frontrunner last night.  She survived, but took a lot of bullets.

(Kevin) Herman Cain: The Georgia businessman was overshadowed for the most part.  His answers on immigration and taxes were good, but viewers were reminded of his controversial comments about Muslims and Mormons, as well as his lack of knowledge on the foreign policy.  The debate was a mixed bag for Cain.

(Craig) Herman Cain:  At times Herman Cain’s charm and personality were in full display.  However, while the other candidates were sparring, Cain also faded away.  Cain is incredible when he can talk generalities, but you need specifics if you are going to challenge another candidate.  His lack of knowledge and depth on many issues is holding him back.

(Kevin) Newt Gingrich:  The former House speaker was fired up and had a terrific debate.  Substance on the issues has always been his forte and Newt showed that.  He was also combative with the moderators, demanding they ask substantive questions.  The audience responded very strongly to that.  Gingrich showed a fire and passion that conservatives are longing for.  He would utterly dismantle Barack Obama in a one-on-one debate.  It was a terrific performance.

(Craig) Newt Gingrich:  Gingrich may not have much of a campaign in Iowa, but his grasp of history and his ability to reference it in some of his answers is incredible.  Gingrich may be the winner of last night’s debate, but unfortunately, he’s not participating in Saturday’s Straw Poll mainly due to a lack of resources.  That means he will be unable to parlay his debate performance into an event that could turn his campaign around.

The best moment of the debate came when Gingrich took Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace to task.  Doing so was risky, but Gingrich came off as the most serious candidate on the stage last night.

(Kevin) Jon Huntsman:  Who?  I barely even noticed he was there.  Dismal performance.

(Craig) Jon Huntsman:  Huntsman was solid in his first debate.  We now know exactly what he brings to the table as a candidate – not much.  As a former Ambassador, one would expect him to own the foreign policy segment of the debate.  He didn’t.   Santorum did.  Huntsman doesn’t have anything on the line in Iowa, but he needed to break out and failed to do so.

(Kevin) Ron Paul: The Texas Congressman delivered stronger performances in the first two debates.  He stumbled a couple times on his answers, searching for the right words.  Mainstream Republicans are more accepting of some of Paul’s views, but I think he lost them again with his refusal to view Iran as a threat.  Paul’s fans will defend him to the end, but I don’t think he expanded his base any.

(Craig) Ron Paul:  It is always difficult to assign grades to Congressman Ron Paul since he plays by his own rules, and conventional wisdom seems not to apply to him.  Still Ron Paul had a solid debate.  His back and forth with Santorum was good for him, as the debate seemed to focus on the two of them for a bit last night.  Paul always stands firm on what he believes, and he did so in this debate.  Paul is a pretty galvanizing figure, so he probably made his supporters like him even more, and his detractors dislike him even more.

(Kevin) Tim Pawlenty:  This might have been the highlight of Pawlenty’s campaign.  He needed to take the fight to Bachmann and Romney, and the former Minnesota Governor did precisely that.  I think he won his exchange with Bachmann, based largely on the fact that she is the frontrunner and he successfully hammered her lack of accomplishments.  Pawlenty might have angered some with his verbal attacks, but he needed a performance like this.  For everyone waiting for T-Paw to show some passion, they finally got their wish.

(Craig) Tim Pawlenty:  Everyone knew that Pawlenty needed to be more aggressive in this debate, and he did not disappoint.  Over all, I think Pawlenty had a decent night.  He handled the question about “Obomney-care” well, but it seemed like he was working too hard when he made his lawn-mowing joke about Romney.

Likewise it was good that he was willing to confront Bachmann, but at times he seemed to be a little over the top.

Pawlenty said of Bachmann, “She led the effort against Obamacare, we got Obamacare. She led the effort against TARP, we got TARP. She said she’s got a titanium spine, it’s not her spine we’re worried about, it’s her record of results. If that’s your view of effective leadership and results, please stop because you’re killing us.”

To suggest that Bachmann alone could have stopped those things is absurd.  Pawlenty scores points for finally being aggressive, but in doing so, he had to get a little dirty.  Having a mud-wrestling contest two days before the Straw Poll probably isn’t a good thing.

(Kevin) Mitt Romney:  The national frontrunner flew completely under the radar, which means good news for him.  A few of the candidates took some shots at Romney, but they failed to deliver significant damage.  Right now, Bachmann is his only threat in the race and she avoided tangling with the former Massachusetts Governor.  Romney is ignoring the Ames Straw Poll, so he did not need to score any points in this debate.  He was barely visible during the second hour, which was probably fine by him.

(Craig) Mitt Romney:  As the national frontrunner, Romney walked out of the debate unscathed.  Most of Romney’s answers were about fiscal issues, but he advocated strongly for a federal marriage amendment.  As the debate progressed, Romney seemed to fade into the background.  At this point, he’s kind of just along for the ride.  There is no need to engage when Bachmann and Pawlenty are busy throwing mud at each other and nobody is throwing mud at you.

(Kevin) Rick Santorum:  He was completely ignored for most of the first hour, but Santorum shined brightly when given the chance.  Whether you agree with Santorum or not, there is no question where he stands on every issue.  Santorum capably validated his strong pro-life stance and reminded Iowans he campaigned for the ouster of the three Supreme Court justices last November.  Santorum landed solid shots on Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann and solidified his social conservative credentials.  It was a good night for Rick Santorum.

(Craig) Rick Santorum:  Santorum needed a breakout performance in the debate, and for the first half hour, it seemed like he wasn’t even going to get the opportunity to even speak.  Santorum did a good job of picking his spots to go on the offensive.  His back and forth interaction with Ron Paul is some of the best actual debatie we have seen.  It wasn’t personal, just an honest political difference.

As the debate went on, Santorum was able to gain attention and creditability by taking on Ron Paul on foreign policy issues, but he also landed a couple shots on Bachmann.  The national media might not notice Santorum’s debate performance, but at least he saved his best debate performance for the lead into the Straw Poll.

Kevin’s Picks

Winners:   Gingrich, Santorum, Pawlenty and Fox News

Losers:  Huntsman and Bachmann

Craig’s Picks

1. Gingrich
2. Santorum
3. Pawlenty
4. Bachmann
5. Paul (He’s number one with his supporters)
6. Romney
7. Cain
8. Huntsman


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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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