Editor's note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has coached his teams to national championships and has been honored with the Ross K. Smith national debate coach of the year award. Graham has analyzed presidential debates for five elections.
(CNN) -- My favorite part of academic debate has always been the cross-examination period. We got a little piece of that (but not enough) in the Republican presidential debate Tuesday hosted by Bloomberg and the Washington Post. The presidential hopefuls were allowed to ask an opponent one question.
Mitt Romney faced seven opponents, and four of them directed their questions at him because he is seen as the frontrunner. While this can be a good idea in theory to try and trip up the frontrunner, it actually helped Romney. The only two people to get significant air time in the first hour were Romney and Herman Cain. So by asking Romney more questions, the other candidates gave him even more time to present his case to the public.
The strategy of the other candidates might have worked if he was on the ropes or was stumbling in the debate, but Romney had not given his opponents any obvious openings. In his answers to the four questions from his opponents, Romney did well.
His answer to Newt Gingrich's question was one of Romney's strongest moments of the debate when he highlighted how his economic plan would help the middle class. He underscored that the middle class has been hit the hardest by the economic downturn, so any presidential candidate should begin by focusing on helping them.
Herman Cain is pretty clever in these exchanges. You can tell he has a few lines that are well rehearsed. In fact, when it was his turn to ask a question, I actually thought he might try to ask himself the question. That way he could insert 9-9-9 into both a question and an answer (which would be a feat even for him).
Instead he asked Romney if he could list off all 59 points of his plan. This question was designed to showcase the simplicity of Cain's plan in comparison. The question was effective enough, but might have backfired when Romney used it to his advantage to say that simple answers are oftentimes inadequate.
Romney took a unique approach. His question was directed at Michele Bachmann. On its face, it seems like a puzzling approach, but I actually like the strategy. It gave air time to someone Romney does not think will be a factor, thereby taking time away from his main rivals.
Plus, he simply asked Bachmann how she could help the economy by putting people to work, which guided her answer away from attacking Romney in her free time. It was a smart choice.
Three of the candidates used their questions to also make solid points. Ron Paul asked Cain about his time spent chairing a Federal Reserve Bank, which is a negative with Paul. Paul's question made the argument that he was correct all along about not trusting the Federal Reserve. Michele Bachmann used her question to attack Rick Perry and remind everyone that she has always been a conservative while Perry used to be a Democrat working for Al Gore.
Rick Santorum also asked Cain a question that made an argument. As part of his question, he attacked the 9-9-9 plan by asking the audience who wanted to pay a 9% sales tax. Santorum then asked the audience if they believed the federal government would stick to a 9% income tax. He used their silence to question and attack Cain.
Rick Perry doesn't seem to get any part of these debates right, and that included the section where he was allowed to ask any other candidate a question. Perry asked Romney a question about health care, but he failed to have depth in his question or attack.
Perry failed to make a positive point about his own health care policy and forgot that in answering the question, Romney would get to freely blast away at the lack of health care for children in Perry's home state of Texas. This was a perfect example of the person answering the questions turning it against the questioner. As is becoming a trend in these debates, Perry came out on the wrong end of that exchange.
Presidential candidates should get to ask each other more questions in the future. Such an approach would add substance, and allowing follow-up questions by the candidates would be even better, since we could more easily judge the depth and knowledge of each candidate.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.