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Feisty Debate Brings Upgrades, Downgrades for GOP Contenders

AMES, Iowa -- Everybody had somebody to fight in Thursday night’s Republican debate.

Tim Pawlenty was boxing with both Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum was in a scrap with Ron Paul. Herman Cain had a couple of jabs for everybody. Jon Huntsman seemed to be mostly battling a queasy stomach, and Newt Gingrich was taking his shots at the referees.

It was one hell of a rumble at the FOX News/Washington Examiner/Iowa GOP debate, and Power Play says that it was about time.

President Obama is in a deep political trough, and the country is facing an uncertain future, so the differences and disagreements between the candidates are more than just matters of political scorekeeping. The first nominating contest is a little more than five months away and we hadn’t heard much to differentiate the candidates until last night.

It certainly charged up the folks in Stephens Auditorium, who oohed, ahhed and cheered like spectators at any good heavyweight bout. The atmosphere was electric. It will have the same effect on Republicans coast to coast, who will now come to realize that while they might think that anybody can beat Obama, they still have to choose somebody for the job.

As a fellow here in Story County might say if a rival asked if he thinks he’s the tougher one: “I reckon we’re getting ready to find out.”

And though a fistfight may be the better metaphor for what took place on stage, Standard & Poor’s probably has the best way to keep score when it comes to a debate and consequences for a campaign. A candidate’s political solvency can be upgraded, downgraded or left unchanged.

Here are Power Play’s bond ratings for the Republican field, post-debate:

AAA

Mitt Romney

After running a campaign based on stealth and wealth, Romney was heading for a candidate downgrade. Republicans are looking for authenticity and fire this time around, and Romney’s decision to remain aloof from his competitors had left him out of step with his electorate.

But when Romney defended himself against his fellow candidates’ claims that he had been late to join them in opposing the congressional debt-ceiling deal saying, that he wasn’t “going to eat Barack Obama’s dog food,” you knew that he was ready to emerge from what Politico called the “Mittness Protection Program.”

Romney also struck a new tone on his mandatory health care law in Massachusetts, or rather reverted to his original argument in favor of it. He said it was a way to end freeloading at his state’s overburdened hospitals, rather than the reedy state’s rights defense he had mounted in the past. Rather than just saying it was legal, he explained why he thought it encouraged personal responsibility. Romney is a long way from finished defending the mandatory insurance idea to liberty-loving Republicans, but he sounded less sorry about it.

While Romney mostly declined his chances to directly fire back at the candidates sniping at him, he showed that he wasn’t in a mood to take any guff. Some of his answers sounded a little too rehearsed, even bordering on the Al Gore-ish, (“I have a seven-point plan…”) but Romney mounted a vigorous defense of his record and his positions.

Most important for Romney is that he remains the only AAA candidate in the field. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s futures are trading very high right now, and he may soon join Romney at the top, but if he does, he will find the frontrunner more safely ensconced there after last night.

AA

Michele Bachmann

No candidate was better situated to get an upgrade out of the debate than Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. She’s got conservatives buzzing and has been dazzling on the campaign trail.

But, because of those higher expectations, she was not able to duplicate her performance in the CNN New Hampshire debate. In fact, because her performance was so similar to the one she delivered in June, particularly her heavy reliance on talking points, this outing seemed to pale in comparison.

Bachmann’s best moment of the night came when she answered the oft-posed question about her self-described submissiveness to husband, Marcus. Her many liberal detractors – and quite a few conservatives – have wondered how a woman who has said that she needs to submit to her husband on key decisions could really be president.

"I respect my husband. And he respects me as his wife. That’s how we operate our marriage. We respect each other. We love each other,” Bachmann said.

It was a lovely moment as she spoke about her husband and their family so tenderly and redefined “submit” in a way less jarring to equality-minded female voters. She didn’t specifically say that the relationship was one between equals, but the mutual-respect concept will work.

Bachmann didn’t do anything else to expand her support beyond a core group of conservative, Tea Party supporters. Since she has to share that base with other candidates, soon to include the evangelical star Perry, there’s no path to victory for Bachmann unless she broadens her appeal.

There was no downgrade from Bachmann on Thursday, but the outlook is growing more negative. She may yet prove to be a stumbling block to Perry’s effort to unite the right, but her star lost some of its luster. That’s the thing about low expectations: You can only beat them once.

Tim Pawlenty

It took him four months, but Tim Pawlenty has finally come to the realization that he’s going to have to fight his way into the Republican race.

Pawlenty, who is little known and without personal wealth, was never going to be able to run the kind of above-the-fray frontrunner campaign that Romney has done. Pawlenty may have looked top-tier on paper – good organization, good political pedigree, influential backers – but the political reality is that Pawlenty still has a lot to prove to Republicans.

Pawlenty has watched scrappy Michele Bachmann, indefatigable Ron Paul and even the king of the one-liners, Herman Cain, push past him in the polls, and on Thursday it finally seemed that he was ready to fight for his place.

Despite all the hype about whether Pawlenty was ready to call the Massachusetts health care law “Obamneycare” to Romney’s face (and Pawlenty did, and then some), Pawlenty’s most righteous indignation was reserved for his fellow Minnesotan, Bachmann.

He hit her for “making false statements” and “misstatements,” and then delivered an exasperated response to Bachmann’s relentless repetition of her claim to leadership in Washington, pointing out that Democrats had rolled up legislative victories for most of her time in Congress and passed multiple bills over her objections, sometimes using her as a foil.

“If that’s your view of effective leadership with results, please stop, because you’re killing us,” he said.

Boom.

Pawlenty was barely hanging on to a single-A rating going into the debate and was ripe for a downgrade to a junk, but he won an upgrade with a strong showing. Even so, it may not have come soon enough.

If he finishes third or worse, especially of it’s behind Bachmann, in the state GOP’s straw poll on Saturday, it will be a serious blow to his chances. If he can’t perform in the event, which is the test of the same organizational skills needed to win the February caucuses, a lot of political insiders will start cashing out on Pawlenty.

Ron Paul

A note to the Republican establishment: Ron Paul isn’t going away anytime soon.

Paul took some serious flak for his libertarian positions on Thursday night, especially as it related to social issues and foreign policy. His laissez-faire attitude on both subjects is still out of the Republican mainstream even though his views on economic and fiscal issues have been adopted by most in the field this time around.

But Paul is not an equivocator. When pressed on why he’s not taking a harder line on Iran and Syria, Paul not only argued that interventionist policies have made America less safe, he offered this succinct expression of his movement’s complaint about the American government these days: "We just don't mind our own business. That's our problem."

That got the crowd on its feet.

Paul gave his Iowa supporters good reason to show up in force at Saturday’s straw poll. Even for those who are convinced that Paul can’t ultimately capture the nomination, his performance will remind them that their support will help him continue to push the GOP into a more libertarian place.

They want to see more of Paul’s pepper in the rest of the debates, and they’ll be inclined to help keep him on the stage with their support.

Paul entered the race with a solid AA, and the outlook is very stable.

A

Newt Gingrich

Gingrich wants voters to know that he’s gotten a raw deal from the press and his advisors. That may not be enough to get him back in the race for the nomination, but it may earn him a more sympathetic hearing.

When Gingrich gave Chris Wallace a tongue-lashing for asking about the rocky road of his campaign – most of his staff gone, deep in debt, stuck at the bottom of the polls – Gingrich was pouring out his frustrations at a presidential run gone wrong.

"I took seriously Bret’s injunction to put aside the talking points. And I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions," he said, referring to host Bret Baier’s plea for candor at a time of national uncertainty.

He later accused Baier of “gotcha” questions too, for asking Gingrich to reconcile dissonant positions on the Libyan civil war.

Gingrich also suggested that he had been a victim of consultants who had spent all his money and left him in the lurch.

The embittered tone, though, eventually gave way to Gingrich’s best quality as a candidate: the ability to explain complex ideas in simple terms. When he riffed on monetary policy, debt retirement and the way Congress ought to work, voters got to hear what many expected would make Gingrich a serious contender in the race: the ideas guy.

While Gingrich may not have managed to earn an upgrade Thursday, he did manage to show some of the old spark. The outlook for Gingrich is more positive now than it was before, especially as someone whose ideas will matter for another generation of conservatives.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum is a heck of a debater. He can land clean blows, work the clock, deftly insert himself in the discussion and make appealing arguments.

He won the first FOX News debate on points, and turned in a fine performance on Thursday. He allowed his frustration with Ron Paul’s foreign policy to get the better of him a bit, but he still turned in a technically superior performance.

The problem for Santorum, though, is that his niche in the field just isn’t big enough. With Michele Bachman soaring with social conservatives, and his moderate portfolio on fiscal and foreign policy less conservative than her or Paul, he has a tough argument to make.

But in the early veepstakes, Santorum is making himself more appealing. If Mitt Romney pulls out the nomination, he would find in Santorum an orthodox Catholic with impeccable social conservative credentials from a swing state. Plus, Santorum was a big Romney booster in 2008.

Santorum’s rating is still an A, but a terminal downgrade looms for his presidential bid. The futures on his career though, are looking up.

Herman Cain

Power Play wishes it had been a listener of Herman Cain’s radio show because the guy is just plain good.

His one-liners and deadpan answers brought some much-needed levity to the debate and while he had some shots for the professional politicians on the stage, he was mostly a balm to the overheated debate.

He even got a shout-out from Mitt Romney for his business experience in a thinly veiled swipe by Romney at the rest of the field public-sector resumes.

But, as Republicans get closer to decision time, Cain’s thinness on foreign policy and big ideas like a national sales tax will continue to slow the Hermmentum he had coming out of the first debate of the year, hosted by FOX News in South Carolina.

Cain is just barely holding on to his A status, and the debate may have reminded Republicans why they love to hear him talk, but it didn’t improve his outlook.

Jon Huntsman

The former Utah governor looked a bit seasick up on stage, at times seeming to clutch the podium.

Despite a tremendous amount of hype, Huntsman has rode over a lot of choppy water to reach this point, so maybe he has a right to feel a little bilious.

And give Huntsman this, he struck an almost defiant tone about his candidacy. He defended his conservative credentials and came awfully close to directly criticizing his archrival Mitt Romney by disdaining those unnamed candidates who run away from their records.

Huntsman also stood fast by his support for civil unions for same-sex couples saying "I also believe in civil unions because I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality,” that’s a non-starter with the GOP electorate, but Huntsman didn’t duck it.

Huntsman hurt his chances with his grim performance and certainly didn’t merit an upgrade, but his outlook depends on his own motivations. If he wants to pour millions more of his family fortune into undercutting Romney with his moderate base in New Hampshire and Florida, Huntsman may not be able to win the nomination, but he could deny it to his rival.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First” political news note and hosts “Power Play,” a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.