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) -- When I watch my debate team during a competition, I look for mistakes. I want to be able to tell my debaters how to do better in their next debate. I decided to take a similar approach when watching the Republican presidential candidates Wednesday night.
We'll focus on the four candidates who got the most speaking time: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas.
I'll start with the newest candidate, Perry. He had no experience debating the other candidates and it showed. While he was by no means terrible, he was also not very polished or prepared. Sure, he came with a bunch of one-liners to use against the other candidates. Some of them played well with the audience, but when asked specific questions, Perry often just avoided questions completely.
He was asked why Texas was last in the country in the number of people with health insurance. He ducked the question and talked about Medicaid. Asked the question again in a follow-up, he blamed the federal government. He didn't explain how his state was different from any other states, which all must follow the federal government guidelines he was criticizing.
Then he was asked about the wealth disparity between white and black households. Perry answered that people need jobs, avoiding the premise of the question. Other questions he failed to answer directly included why he cut state education aid, and whether President George W. Bush had been a "military adventurist" who went to war too quickly.
Still other Perry answers were just plain bad. He repeatedly called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" without offering any ideas on how to fix it. The other candidates immediately capitalized on his choice of language by explaining how people need and depend on Social Security. Maybe in future debates Perry will be able to explain himself better, but he didn't Wednesday night.
He also contradicted himself when answering a question about his executive order requiring preteen girls in Texas to be vaccinated against human papilloma virus. "At the end of the day, I will always opt to save lives," Perry said. This is the same Republican who condemns the individual mandate to carry medical insurance, part of the health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama, as an overbearing government intrusion on personal liberty. It seemed that Perry favored government regulation to save lives in some instances but not others.
Perry's worst stumble of the night was on climate change. He had previously stated that the science was not settled, but when challenged by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and the moderator, John Harris, about how he came to that conclusion, Perry could name no scientist he had read or evidence he had seen that lent credence to his position. He just repeated that we still "need to find out what the science is" and "the fact of the matter is that the science is not settled."
If the science is not settled, and climate change is not real, then Perry should have been able to answer the question. But his response was a nonanswer and his delivery was timid. I don't think anyone in the audience believed he knew what he was talking about. Huntsman called him anti-science, and Perry answered by practically saying, "Present."
Bachmann has not changed much since the first debate. In too many cases, she simply does not answer the question. Twice she was asked what she would do about the 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States and never gave a specific answer. At the end of her second attempt, she finished by saying something about how immigrants must promise that they won't be a burden to the taxpayer. Huh? What does that mean?
Bachmann was also asked twice about Obama's policy in Libya before she gave a straight answer. In academic competition, when someone fails to answer a question directly the first time, it is usually a sign of a weak argument or an unsure debater. I can excuse Perry since this was his first debate. But Bachmann should know her answers by now. She needs to answer the questions directly in future debates to avoid this negative perception.
Paul's stance on most issues is fairly clear -- refreshing for a political candidate. He wants to keep the federal government out of citizens' lives as much as possible, including on safety issues.
But claims that "consumers are smart enough to know safe cars," and that drug companies can regulate themselves through the free market required proof. In those two instances, Paul needed to elaborate. Particularly since his stance seems counterintuitive, he must back up his claims with as much credible evidence as possible.
Finally, Romney: He is quite skilled at answering questions in political debates, especially those dealing with his potential weaknesses. However, Romney could still improve, and the one area where the other candidates were gaining traction in their attacks on him was on health care. He favored individual mandates and helped to pass mandatory health care in Massachusetts.
In the time he had, and within the debate's format, Romney was unable to make a clear delineation between his bill and Obama's national health care legislation. Since everyone on that stage opposes the national bill, Romney needs to do a better job of explaining how his plan was different. Other than that, Romney held steady: a smooth operator with the least apparent fumbles of any of the candidates Wednesday night in California.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.