Editor’s Note: Todd Graham is a professor of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won five national championships; he’s been named the national debate coach of the year three times and been presented with the lifetime achievement award in academia and debate. You can find him at his website, on Facebook and on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Whether it was due to a less crowded debate stage or the experienced bench of moderators, the third Republican presidential debate held in Miami on Wednesday night was easily the smoothest debate yet.
But that doesn’t mean everyone performed well. I scored the five candidates with letter grades, ranging from A to F. Here’s how they fared.
CHRIS CHRISTIE: A-
I know, right. I didn’t see it coming either. The former New Jersey governor was the biggest surprise. During the debate, I thought Chris Christie was doing well, but it wasn’t until after the debate when examining my notes that I noticed something peculiar. The Christie debating trademark was missing. Usually, his moments of brilliance are –— as Senator Tim Scott would probably understand — sandwich-boarded by acts of self-flagellation. But that didn’t happen this time. Christie eliminated his errors and in so doing, had the most consistent debate, start to finish.
One would think that answering the moderator’s question is an important part of the debating process, but most candidates consider it optional. Not Christie. Yes, he could have been much stronger with his first answer on how he differentiated himself from Donald Trump, but unlike others on stage, at least he mentioned Trump’s legal issues.
Christie was on point with direct answers from there on out. He was flat-out great in justifying our support of Ukraine, a debate Christie can win against anyone. On other topics, Christie taught me that nuclear subs are our best deterrent of China and they should be upgraded/built before other ships. Plus, I liked his answer on inflation – on why energy drives most prices, so our energy policy should be our focus to address inflation.
I understand that he probably won’t be the nominee and many MAGA Republicans dislike Christie. But Christie didn’t do anything in the debate to compound the issue, and his straightforward approach to policymaking won me over.
NIKKI HALEY: B
There were only two candidates on stage who demonstrated a clear understanding of complex issues. Chris Christie and Nikki Haley. Unfortunately, Haley’s Dr. Jekyll (depth of knowledge on a range of complex issues, good communicator, comfortable and confident) wasn’t alone. Watching these debates, I’ve learned that Haley has another side: Mr. Hyde.
As the resident expert of ‘letting little things get to me,’ I understand Haley’s Mr. Hyde. I wrote after the last debate that Haley makes poor decisions when something (or someone) gets under her skin. Debate is a timed activity and I teach my debaters that they can’t answer every attack against them. But Haley’s taken this to new levels. She just can’t leave well enough alone if she feels criticized. Haley rehashes tangential and irrelevant issues.
Haley’s strategy of continued infighting, especially with businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, is a perfect example of her struggling with who she wants to be in her approach to these debates. Mr. Hyde’s persona is intoxicating at times with its headline grabbing nature (usually at Ramaswamy’s expense). But there’s a time to unleash the beast (which Haley does at least once a debate) – and a time to just let Dr. Jekyll do all the debating.
As her worst, Haley never lets insignificant insults go unanswered, she veers off topic to remind us she can be as petty and thin-skinned as anyone else on stage and it’s a debating strategy with no traction. It’s as if Haley doesn’t know her strength. Hint: it’s not scrumming and interrupting on any given topic with any given candidate who might have mentioned something about her at some random previous point in the debate that nobody cares about or remembers.
Haley’s strength is her knowledge of issues and she’s got a sharp wit, evidenced by her timing during the most contentious portion of the debate. When Ramaswamy paused right after saying the phrase “Here’s the truth…” The next words heard by everyone were Hyde/Haley’s when she muttered, “You’re just scum.” But the actual truth is: Dr. Jekyll was doing just fine without the name calling.
RON DESANTIS: C-
There is nothing to report here. Ron DeSantis is a C (ish) debater. You might remember the anti-woke cultural warrior governor of Florida from his many news headlines. The Never Back Down candidate was a perfectly average debater before. But this new DeSantis is totally different. He changed his rhetorical approach away from the culture wars he championed and toward becoming a storyteller who is focused on the people while highlighting policy strengths.
The problem: The pivot was to a place of weakness. DeSantis is a poor storyteller and when he talks policymaking, he sounds like a caricature. If you aren’t sure about the storytelling, just watch the screen when he closes with “God bless you” and pay attention to his nonverbal communication (the fake-looking smile). Oh, and when he was teased by both Ramaswamy and Haley about having lifts in his shoes, I burst out laughing, looking at DeSantis who seemed puzzled to understand the insult and then looked down at his feet. (A+ job to NBC on that camera angle pan-out).
In defense of specific policies, DeSantis vacillates between clear specifics (he knows how many ships he wants to build) to bumper-sticker nonsense. Words to the effect of “My policy is very simple: We win, they lose” was topping this list until DeSantis went to the well again on sending the US military to Mexico to fight the drug cartels. It was obvious that conservative moderator Hugh Hewitt wanted specifics of how invading Mexico is realistic or workable, yet all DeSantis had to offer was the same line about fentanyl drug smugglers. “We’re gonna shoot them stone cold dead.”
Lawless vigilante murdering as a solution? Now you see why Hewitt asked for specifics.
TIM SCOTT: D
The Tim Scott pivot was also inevitable given his poll numbers. The South Carolina Senator felt like he needed to play into his strengths. His adjusted course was a revival. Literally.
Taking a page from the newly selected Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson’s biblical republic, Scott made his Christian faith the theme for his debate. It’s not just that Scott was quoting Bible and verse (he was). Scott also emphasized turning toward Christian values. He sounded like he was running for Theocrat of the United States.
Scott made a totally reasonable point on showing accountability of the money spent in Ukraine, but wasted that momentum by insulting voters who weren’t like him. His ‘basket of deplorables’ moment came when he called people on the Left “valueless, faithless, fatherless.”
As in the other debates, Scott seemed outmatched by the knowledge of his opponents, so it’s understandable for him to go with what he knows. But when it’s accompanied by lines such as “we need a great awakening” and he wants us together to win the war for “Christian conservative values,” it sounds ominous.
VIVEK RAMASWAMY: F
At this point, Vivek Ramaswamy’s car only has one gear. D. No, not “drive.” Dislikeable. And he keeps hitting the turbo button!
On the topic of abortion, I’ll just quote Ramaswamy. “Here’s my view on this. Speaking as a man, they say men have trouble speaking on this issue. I don’t think we need to be that way.”
I was unfamiliar with Ramaswamy before the debates and now that I’ve seen him three times, I can say without any doubt that nobody needs a reminder Ramaswamy speaks as a man. From what I can tell, his entire personality was built around stereotypes and traits he sees as masculine. Ramaswamy’s communication is overbearing, loud, aggressive, arrogant, rude and dismissive.
His worst moment was when sparring with Haley. Ramaswamy crossed a line by mentioning Haley’s daughter. Last debate it was Jill Biden who was inappropriately mentioned (thanks to Chris Christie).
It was how he mentioned Haley’s daughter that was so inappropriate. The topic was TikTok and Haley’s daughter previously had an account. So Ramaswamy leveraged that information against Haley’s position to say, “…So you might want to take care of your family first…” And then Haley called him scum, and the debate continued as if that’s the new normal. *shakes head*
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