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Opinion: And the winner is… a champion debate coach grades the performances

Opinion by Todd Graham

(CNN) — The old saying, “it’s never too late to give a good first impression” is a myth. Given the opening Republican primary debate in Milwaukee Wednesday night was perhaps the first time many audience members got a chance to see some of the Republicans running for president, I’ll grade the delivery and content from these first impressions.

Nikki Haley

The former US Ambassador to the United Nations and Governor of South Carolina had a solid debate. I liked her overall demeanor, energy and speaking style. Haley opposes abortion personally, but her argument in the debate was that we should stop “demonizing this issue.” Haley knows that her policy position might not be that popular at the ballot box, so I found her attempt to lower the temperature of the issue a smart choice.

Haley was honest when she said Trump is the “most disliked politician in America,” which was a hard pill to swallow for the unruly Republican audience in attendance. Finally, Haley absolutely embarrassed businessman Vivek Ramaswamy on the topic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You could tell she knew what she was talking about and was rightfully annoyed by the neophyte’s position. Haley reminded everyone that Putin probably murdered someone that very day (amid intense speculation about the plane crash that reportedly killed Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin). “This guy is a murderer and you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country.” Finally, she said directly to Ramaswamy, “Under your watch you would make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.”


Mike Pence 

The former vice president showed emotion. Like Haley, and Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Pence seemed agitated by Ramaswamy’s position on Ukraine. It was the most animated I’ve seen Pence in a debate. His comment that, “We achieve peace through strength, and America needs to stand for freedom” was spot on.

The moderators did Pence a huge favor by asking everyone on stage if they thought Pence did the right thing on January 6 (by not trying to overturn the election, I suppose). Pence got a lot of “attaboys” from the other candidates, which elevated his status in the debate. But Pence wasn’t perfect. He was involved in a lot of interrupting, which was a distraction. Pence glossed over the covid lockdowns question and was unable to separate himself from Trump in any important way. After glorifying the Trump/Pence administration without significant separating from Trump, why wouldn’t people just vote for Trump?


Chris Christie

Christie made an unforced error in the debate when he used one of his canned lines designed to blunt an unruly audience. When the audience was pushed back (but not very much), Christie stopped and said, “That is the great thing about this country, booing is allowed but it doesn’t change the truth.”

Nice line. But Christie might want to wait until he’s actually getting hammered by the audience. Because in this case, it was as if Christie just challenged them, and it was game on. The audience then showed ole Chris Christie what booing really sounds like. He couldn’t even speak, and the debate stopped briefly.

During one of Christie’s strongest moments, he reminded us what Putin’s Russia is doing to individuals in Ukraine, when he said we should stop normalizing conduct that is “beneath the office of the president of the United States.”


Ron DeSantis

My first impression of his introductory remarks: He needs to work on his “fake” smile. It looked like he was in pain. Unfortunately for DeSantis, his closing remarks included the same unnatural forced smile, which means he began and ended his debate by appearing awkward, impersonal and uncomfortable.

At times, DeSantis came across as angry, seemingly out of the blue. By the end of his first answer, he was almost yelling, with his neck and head jabbing forward constantly on every single word. DeSantis looked like a baseball manager arguing with an umpire. But he improved as the debate continued, and was pretty comfortable with his delivery and content by the end.

My favorite DeSantis moment was when the candidates were asked if they would support their nominee if that person was convicted of a felony. DeSantis looked to his right and nobody had their hand raised. He then looked to his left and everyone had their hand raised. So DeSantis sheepishly shrugged and followed the lead. He raised his hand that he would support a felon for president, but only after seeing how everyone else voted. Never back down indeed — but maybe peek to see what everybody else is doing first.


Tim Scott

The Senator from South Carolina had good eye contact and an easy speaking style without a lot of bad habits. But I had to chuckle when he said that he talked slow because he was a southerner, and then the bell forced him to stop. Scott should try to get to his point across more quickly in future debates. Overall, Scott appeared likeable and had a strong closing.

As for his content, Scott made a couple of questionable statements that needed context and clarification: Scott’s claims that some states allow abortion up until birth, and that Bidenomics lost $10,000 for every family both needed more context and evidentiary support. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a lot of speaking time, and failed to separate himself from the crowd.


Doug Burgum

The North Dakota governor made some stylistic mistakes. He stared too long at the camera without breaking eye contact. Staring nonstop at the camera is unnatural for a debate. For a podcast, yes. For a debate, no.

Also, Burgum needs to learn to expand his answers. He stopped short when he was making an excellent point about small towns, and again when talking about China. I’ve seen this happen often. The audience gives positive feedback, so the debater just ends their answer right at that time, even if there’s a lot of time left on the clock. It’s a mistake to end early with such a crowded field vying for attention.

Burgum claimed that President Biden greenlit Russia moving into Ukraine. Such a bold statement needs evidence. But I liked his answers on education, and his statement that “the idea that every school district…and every teacher is somehow indoctrinating people is just false.”


Asa Hutchinson

The former governor of Arkansas had a similar debate to Burgum. These might be the two candidates we know the least about, so Hutchinson’s lack of effort to get into the fray did him no favors. Indeed, it was easy to forget he was on the stage at times.

Hutchinson seemed less vibrant than the other candidates, which hurt him since a big topic of the debate was Biden’s age and how we need a new generation. It was hard not to associate Hutchinson with the stigma of being from the generation that was mostly being critiqued.

I appreciated his answers on why Trump was both morally and perhaps legally disqualified from becoming president again. “I am not going to support someone who has been convicted of a serious felony.” Hutchinson had a good closing line about bringing out the best in our people. I just wish he’d brought out his best a bit earlier in the debate.


Vivek Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy was definitely the most polarizing candidate. I found his interrupting and interjecting himself into almost every topic to be off-putting. And he always seemed to get a dig in at the other candidates, sometimes inaudibly, due to the cross-talk. You know what he reminded me of? An internet troll come to life. Worse for Ramaswamy, Christie, Haley and Pence came out on top in most of those exchanges.

Ramaswamy had fun saying outrageous things like, “I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for,” “climate change is a hoax…more people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change,” and “Do you want a patriot who speaks the truth…I want a revolution.” These lines play better online than in a presidential debate. Unfortunately, Ramaswamy gave me the impression that he’s an unserious person seeking the most serious job in the world.


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