Editor's note: Todd Graham is the director of debate at Southern Illinois University. 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 evaluated presidential debates for five elections and been analyzing the presidential debates for CNN.com's Opinion section during the 2012 campaign.
(CNN) -- Mitt Romney wasted no time in Monday night's Republican presidential debate. He began his very first answer with a prolonged attack on Newt Gingrich.
All I could think of was the original "Star Wars" movie, when Gold Five keeps telling Gold Leader, "Stay on target -- stay on target." (I love that scene.) This is important in presidential debates: Staying focused -- on target -- can make all the difference when arguing against another debater or when presenting your own arguments.
Romney's attacks were -- to borrow a phrase from the Gingrich camp's now famous May 18 press release (which was dramatically recited by John Lithgow on "The Colbert Report") -- "firing without taking aim." Romney didn't seem to take a breath, mentioning Gingrich's resignation ("in disgrace") as House speaker, accusing him of influence-peddling, throwing in cap and trade, Medicare, and Freddie Mac -- everything but the kitchen sink (which Romney apparently only paid a 15% tax on) before some of his attacks finally succeeded. Why? He stayed focused on a single line of attack long enough to drive the point home.
He even got Gingrich to redefine his job with Freddie Mac as "consultant." Gingrich has been careful to avoid this term as much as possible, usually referring to his work with Freddie Mac as "historian." ("Consultant" sounds a little too close to "lobbyist.") Romney reminded us that historians aren't paid $1.6 million.
Plus, Romney provided a new twist: "You were hired by the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac," later adding, "You can call that whatever you'd like, I call it influence peddling." It was an effective critique, and remained singularly focused. And it produced the rare moment for Newt Gingrich: He fell silent for a few beats, apparently without a ready response.
At another point, Gingrich offered a nonresponse to a criticism from Romney over Gingrich's tenure as House speaker. "I'm not going to spend the evening trying to chase Gov. Romney's misinformation," he said, and directed the audience to his website. News flash for Newt Gingrich: This is a debate, this is the time to respond, the time to change people's minds, not to appear inconvenienced by a rival's charges.
Debaters must also stay on target when presenting their own arguments, and not just attacking. I get a lot of questions about Ron Paul and his debating. Paul has two problems. The first is getting the moderator to give him speaking time, and the second is that he (naturally) overcompensates for his lack of equal time by trying to fit too much into one answer. Unfortunately, this makes his answers seem to ramble.
But Monday night Paul had one of his better debates. This is ironic, of course, since he isn't even attempting to campaign hard in Florida, where the primary is winner-take-all.
First, on the issue of Cuba: Paul's suggestion that it might be time to lift the embargo, while it may not be as popular in Florida, is favored by a majority of the American people. He was persuasive when he stated that it's not 1962 and we don't need to force and intimidate other governments.
Even Republicans have moved toward Paul's position on establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, so when Gingrich stated he would advocate a policy, if elected president, "aggressively to overthrow the regime," Paul was prepared. He stayed focused, reminding the audience that we talked to and opened up trade with the Soviets, the Chinese, and even the Vietnamese. So why not Cuba? His position came across as much more reasonable.
But Paul missed other opportunities. He could have done much better when the question covered the federal government's intervention in the case of Terry Schiavo, a 1998 controversy over whether to remove the feeding tube from a Florida woman who was living in a vegetative state. Paul clearly disagreed with Gingrich and Santorum over federal government intervention.
But somehow, while Paul was providing sage advice on why everyone should have a living will, he lost focus and did not drive his point home about state's rights and reducing the size of government in our lives. Again, the public supports Paul's position by a wide margin. And the topic ties in so beautifully with Paul's two overarching themes of individual liberty and small government. He needed to make this connection and then repeat it over and over.
Staying on target. Important -- if not so much for Gold Leader as for the candidates.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Todd Graham.