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Romney beats Gingrich at his own game

By Todd Graham, Special to CNN
updated 7:16 PM EST, Fri January 27, 2012
Mitt Romney makes a point at Thursday night's CNN/Republican Party of Florida debate
Mitt Romney makes a point at Thursday night's CNN/Republican Party of Florida debate
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Debate coach Todd Graham says Mitt Romney changed his approach
  • He was effective in countering the arguments of the other candidates, he says
  • He says Romney showed presence and dominated the debate
  • Graham: GOP wants someone who looks like a winner, and Thursday night, it was Romney

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 has been analyzing the presidential debates for CNN.com's Opinion section during the 2012 campaign.

(CNN) -- The first competitive debating technique I teach is AARP. No, I don't tell my teams to debate like older people. Argue. Attack. Respond. Presence.

Mitt Romney has improved in all four areas, and I can't overstate how important that was in Thursday night's CNN/Republican Party of Florida debate, especially presence.

Who do you think won the debate? Share your thoughts in a short video.

Todd Graham
Todd Graham

Argue: Make your case. Romney was better at explaining his ideas. One example: On immigration, Romney said the issue involves three categories of people: those who come here illegally on their own, people brought in by coyotes and those who are waiting on one in their own home country. Romney said he believed we should focus our attention on the latter two groups and make legal immigration work better. That idea played well in the debate.

Attack: Point out your opponent's weaknesses. Romney improved here as well. In response to a question that had been first aimed at Newt Gingrich about colonizing the moon, Romney said he would fire anyone who brought him such an idea in this economy. (He really does like firing people.) He went on to make the point that candidates need to stop pandering by promising projects to voters, and ended with, "We've got to say no to this kind of spending."

Gingrich responded that we should not be "cheap everywhere." But he lost the point, especially with fiscally conservative Republicans. Moon colonies, to many, sound utterly ridiculous in this economy, and Romney exploited that fact.

Respond: Don't let criticisms go unanswered. Again, Romney learned from previous debates. He first had an excellent line answering Gingrich's assertion that grandmothers and grandfathers were not likely to "self-deport." Romney came back: "Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers." Boom! It both mocked Gingrich's grandmother self-deportation argument while at the same time underscoring the vast issue of illegal immigration.

GOP candidates debate in Florida
GOP candidates go at it during debate
Gingrich staffer speaks about debate
Santorum speaks about Florida debate

And on his investments in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Romney countered by saying that they were made from a blind trust (a "backward step" in debate strategy). Romney continued with the "pivot forward" technique, which turns a potential negative into a positive by reminding us that one's financial accomplishments "... shouldn't be seen as a detriment ... [but] as an asset to help America." Perfect. Isn't it nice when something plays out exactly like you drew it up?

Presence: No matter how good your argument is, your delivery must be convincing. Romney made his stand in Florida. He changed his demeanor. And that one change was more important than all the other improvements combined. I believe Republicans in the South Carolina primary rejected Romney because he didn't look or act like a winner in the debate there. He does now. He bested Gingrich on attitude in front of a raucous crowd -- Gingrich's usual "comfort zone." In other words, he beat Gingrich at his own game.

The first example was when he told Gingrich to stop calling him "anti-immigrant." Romney stared down the former House speaker and said, "The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don't use a term like that." What followed next was telling. Gingrich looked away and actually mumbled (almost inaudibly) "I'll tell you what ... " And trailed off. The lecturer (Gingrich) got lectured! It wasn't the slick Mitt with the professional style anymore. It was a man-to-man stare-down. And Newt blinked. Romney was indignant and believable. That one debate moment might have shifted the balance permanently in his favor.

The other memorable example was when Gingrich was trying to avoid repeating negative statements he made about Romney's finances. Moderator Wolf Blitzer pressed him, and Gingrich appeared about to squirrel his way out of it when Romney interjected, "Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?" Kaboom! Again, Romney's stage presence was stronger. And although Gingrich eventually answered the question, by then it was unimportant.

For his part, Rick Santorum went overboard repeatedly. There's a fine line between criticizing others and being overzealous. Remember, I liked his approach in my previous debate analysis, but last night, Santorum's emotions were overdone. He looked overheated. In fact, Romney at one point said to him in response to Santorum's passionate phrasing of a question on health care in Romney's home state, "It's not worth getting angry about." The content of Santorum's argument was lost in what sometimes seemed like a manic delivery. He needs to take it down just a notch or two.

Ron Paul? He was pretty darn funny last night, telling Blitzer at one point that the subject at hand didn't really interest him; challenging everyone to a 25-mile bike ride to demonstrate his good health; and suggesting sending politicians to the moon, instead of building colonies there. But my favorite moment was when Paul was asked about a hypothetical phone conversation he might have with Raul Castro from the Oval Office. Paul's response? "I'd ask him what he called about, you know?" Awesome.

My takeaway: Republicans want somebody to fight for them, and after South Carolina, they seemed to think Gingrich was that guy. Not anymore. As of last night, Republican voters should see Romney as strong enough to be president. And more than anything, that's why he won the debate.

Romney's found his presence. And now that he has, there's zero chance he'll give it up the rest of the way through the primaries.

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

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