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Debate coach on GOP: Fun dust-ups, missed opportunities

By Todd Graham, Special to CNN
  • Todd Graham says GOP Iowa debate was a series of mini-debates between candidates
  • Tim Pawlenty's aggressive shots at Michele Bachmann hurt him more than her, he says
  • He says Rick Santorum foolish to take on Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman didn't convince GOP voters
  • Graham: Rick Perry, who is not yet a candidate, and Mitt Romney, who is, did best

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 five elections.

(CNN) -- A funny thing happened in Thursday night's Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa. An argument broke out.

In fact, there were several arguments. This is unusual for a presidential debate because, believe it or not, they don't usually have much arguing. You know what I'm talking about. The debates are usually a series of two-minute speeches dressed up as responses to questions, but not Thursday night.

In some cases, candidates seemed to pair off into sparring partners, jabbing at each other, as the moderators from Fox News coaxed them along. Being a debate coach, I found all this refreshing. To help myself follow what was happening, I decided to analyze those mini-debates sprouting up all over the stage. There were:

Bachmann vs. Pawlenty: Michele Bachmann wins this debate. Don't get me wrong. I liked Tim Pawlenty's arguments better than Bachmann's as they traded shots on each other's records, but his presentation will backfire. Pawlenty clearly had learned that he'd blown the last debate in June. (He was reminded of this by one of the moderators who offered him a mulligan on the "Romneycare" question from back then.)

Pawlenty took the advice people had likely given him to be more aggressive. Unfortunately, he fumbled again for two reasons. First, he overcorrected. He was too passive in the previous debate, and too aggressive in this one. The second problem is that Bachmann is a woman, and she faced a friendly audience. A lesson I have learned time and time again in coaching for debates is that if a man comes across as overly aggressive while debating a woman, he will lose his target audience every time. (Think Rick Lazio crossing the stage toward Hillary Clinton in 2000.)

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Few understand how perfect Joe Biden was in his debate against Sarah Palin in 2008. Biden's balancing act between knowledge and condescension, assertiveness and aggression was remarkable. I'm afraid Pawlenty did not show that skill, and the live audience reactions made it most obvious.

Santorum vs. Paul: Both lost their mini-debate. Rick Santorum only did two things in this go-round. He complained about his lack of speaking time, and then when he got that precious time in front of the microphone, he decided to use it to start up a fight with Ron Paul. Ron Paul? That's Santorum's goal? He chose to waste the majority of his speaking time by differentiating himself from Paul. Mission accomplished, but Paul has little chance of winning the nomination; it's like shooting dead fish in a barrel. Plus, Paul has a cult following, so Santorum lost a bunch of the audience by picking on the little guy in front of diehard fans.

I actually liked Paul in this debate much better than the last one, but again, he is debating for Republican votes, and while many people might think parts of his anti-militarism message ring true, those people are not holding up the base of the Republican Party. When Paul said that Iran should get nuclear weapons, I thought I could hear a pin drop in that huge auditorium. Speaking of the Republican base. ...

Huntsman vs. the Republican Party: Jon Huntsman loses. The candidate, who made his first national debate appearance Thursday night, has different opinions from many other candidates on the stage (he supports civil unions, for example ). That can be a strength, for sure. However, when you are the lone wolf, you gotta howl. Huntsman needed to stand tall and convince the Republican voters that his positions were the right ones. He was simply not a strong enough presence Thursday night.

Herman Cain vs. Herman Cain: I prefer the "new" Cain over the "classic." The Cain who showed up Thursday night was forced to answer several questions about his previous dubious statements, made in debate and on the campaign trail, and I thought he did a terrific job. Contrasted with the last debate, where he looked out of place and over his head, Cain's improvement was noticeable.

Gingrich vs. Wallace: Easily the biggest loser in Thursday night's debate was questioner Fox News Channel anchor Chris Wallace. You gotta love Newt Gingrich. While he might have seemed upset a couple of times, he still came out way ahead in this fight. Wallace injected himself into this debate in such a way that I swear he thought he was running for president.

Wallace seemed to want to prove himself, to show that he was smarter than the candidates. Hey, I've got no problems with direct questions. But Wallace was snarky and sarcastic and seemed to want the last word. An example of this was when, after a testy exchange with Gingrich, Wallace began his question of Huntsman with the following snide opening, "With the risk of raising Speaker Gingrich's ire, I'm going to ask you about your record, sir." Wallace lost my vote right there. Oh wait, I forgot: He isn't running.

And finally. ...

Romney vs. Perry: Both winners. The two front-runners did very well. Rick Perry won since he was not involved in the debate, but he is expected to announce his candidacy Saturday. And fortunately for him, no one took any serious swings at him. Romney also won in Thursday night's debate, but he did it with defense, fending off all attacks nicely. The other candidates and the moderators laid into Romney much more than in the previous debate, but he reminded me of those wizards in "Harry Potter" that specialize in the defense against the dark arts. He continually brushed off their advances with ease, as if he only had to flick his wand. And he succeeded at it while remaining in control ... and presidential.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.