Editor’s Note: Todd Graham is a professor of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won five national championships; he’s been named the national debate coach of the year three times and been presented with the lifetime achievement award in academia and debate. You can find him at his website, on Facebook and on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
If you were lucky enough to watch, you were treated to the finest speech ever given in a presidential debate. Let’s get right to it — here’s how the four candidates scored:
Chris Christie: A+
Since all great speeches should have a title, I’m naming it “Chris Christie’s Retribution Speech.”
To make a memorable argument in a debate, you need at least three things. First, the issue being debated has to be salient. Second, you need to lock down your position with good examples and evidence. Finally, your delivery is crucial. But even that’s not enough. For an argument to stand out in a debate, it must contain all three of those elements — and it must be a position not yet heard by the debating audience.
The “Chris Christie Retribution Speech” met all the criteria.
First: was the topic salient? Indeed it was, and the former governor of New Jersey knew it. Here’s part of his answer when asked what he thought of former President Donald Trump’s comments this week, that if elected again he would be a dictator only on “day one.”
“Completely predictable,” said Christie. “This is an angry, bitter man, who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him, anyone who has tried to hold him to account for his own conduct…. Do I think he was kidding when he said he was a dictator? All you have to do is look at the history…”
Second: Christie’s reasoning was solid, and his explanation of Trump’s popularity was smart debating. He took a weakness (Trump is polling way higher than Christie) and turned it into an attack on his debate opponents. Christie continued, “You want to know why those poll numbers are where they are? Because folks like these three guys on stage make it seem like his conduct is acceptable.”
Third: You really need to watch his delivery. It’s a 2-minute speech, and it’s glorious. Watch Christie’s nonverbal movement and listen to his cadence. Hear the phrases and where Christie places the emphasis. One line stands out: Trump’s phrase of “I am your retribution,” when quoted by Christie, was chilling.
Christie might have just given the single most important speech in presidential debating history. It was certainly the finest.
Other Christie stand-out moments: Confronting fellow debater Vivek Ramaswamy, who was once again being himself. Christie told him to stop insulting Nikki Haley, said Ramaswamy had a smart-ass mouth, and gave this knock-out blow: “All he knows how to do is insult good people who’ve committed their lives to public service and not say anything that moves the ball down the field for the United States.”