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. He has analyzed presidential debates for the past five elections.
(CNN) -- After watching Monday night's vice-presidential debate, I'd say that none of the six candidates came out ahead. They all still have a shot at the second spot on the Republican ticket. Confused? So was I.
What was supposed to be the first major debate of the Republican presidential campaign turned into a contest for the bottom half of the ticket. None of the six candidates came out ahead, because none of them acted as if he or she were running for president. The result could not have turned out better for the seventh debater, Mitt Romney.
With presidential debates, rarely is there a moment when one candidate seems clearly overmatched. The women and men in presidential debates are by this time seasoned veterans when it comes to talking behind a podium, so they should not expect their opponents to hand them an easy victory through verbal blunders or a lack of understanding on the issues. Almost all presidential debates, when judged objectively, are very close. A clear strategy is needed to set oneself apart.
Debating is no different from any other competition. It's all about strategy. In any competitive event, you need to adjust your strategy when you are significantly ahead or behind. The polls say that Mitt Romney is comfortably in front, so two things should have happened. First, Romney should have debated like the front-runner. Second, the other candidates should have debated as though they were behind in the polls and taken any and every chance to differentiate themselves from Romney.
Romney played his part. He seemed presidential in both his speaking and his mannerisms. When he attacked, it was against President Obama, not the other candidates. The debate began with Romney taking center stage, and nothing ever knocked him off of it.
In playing their roles, the other candidates could not have been worse. They did not contrast themselves with Romney, even when given a chance. There was a missed opportunity on the abortion topic when the question was specifically about Romney's apparent flip-flop on the issue. Rick Santorum answered the question, but never mentioned Romney by name.
Even after the question, the moderator, John King, asked if anyone believed it was an issue in the campaign, and all the candidates took a pass. Herman Cain actually said, "Case closed." This was a golden opportunity for the other candidates to separate themselves from Romney, but the room was silent.
However, the worst moment in the debate came from Tim Pawlenty. On the campaign trail, he had recently played with the wording of what is commonly, and sometimes derisively, referred to as "Obamacare," the health care reform spearheaded by Obama. He changed it to "Obamneycare" in an attempt to link it to the health care reform that Romney supported as governor of Massachusetts.
This was a huge opportunity to attack a potential weakness of Romney's, especially in front of the Republican base. Instead, Pawlenty backed off, not once but twice. He refused to attack Romney, instead blaming his own words on Obama. It was hard not to look on in horror as Pawlenty appeared so weak that he seemed outmatched by the moderator. Pawlenty was called out, and he did exactly the opposite of what he -- and everyone else -- should have done to win this debate. An embarrassing moment.
The final words in Monday night's presidential debate were spoken by Herman Cain, when he said that the candidates are "not that far apart on all the big issues." He is correct, and unless your name is Romney, admitting that in a debate is a problem.
I have no idea if Romney will win the Republican nomination. But he thinks he will. And that makes all the difference in how he is debating. He is already debating against Obama, which is the right strategy.
The other candidates either need to keep hoping for a vice-presidential nod, or they need to change their mode of debating. At least at this point, it seems as if they all remember that Joe Biden was the 2008 presidential candidate who did not anger Obama, and they are debating with that strategy in mind.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.