Presidential debate turns into Rock 'Em, Sock 'Em Republicans

The focus of Tuesday's Republican presidential debate was supposed to be Herman Cain, but Rick Perry and Mitt Romney went at each other like heavyweights, suggesting that each thinks the other is his main competition.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (l.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry argue during a Republican presidential debate Tuesday in Las Vegas.
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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was the prime target in Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, signaling the degree to which he’s considered the candidate to beat.

In a debate notable for bickering, animosity, and highly personal exchanges, Mr. Romney played the part of punching bag on numerous occasions, most notably on health care and immigration. And for the first time in the eight Republican debates to date, Romney appeared flustered at times, especially as opponents repeatedly interrupted his rebuttals.

“You just don’t have the credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing ObamaCare,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum charged in one early exchange – claiming, as other candidates did, that Romney’s plan in Massachusetts that included an individual mandate was “the basis for ObamaCare.”

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A little later, Texas Gov. Rick Perry fielded a question about the number of uninsured children in Texas and turned it into an attack on Romney’s immigration stance, citing a lawn-care company Romney once used that employed illegal immigrants.

“You lose all your standing from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home,” he said, calling Romney’s immigration policy “the height of hypocrisy.”

Romney countered that he’s “never hired an illegal in my life,” and added that “it is hard in this country as an individual homeowner to know if people who are contractors, working at your home, have hired people who are illegal.”

Romney got into bickering matches with both men, repeatedly calling on them to stop talking so he could defend himself.

“This has been a tough couple debates for Rick,” he said at one point, in calling for Perry to let him answer. “I understand that, you’re going to get a bit testy.”

The debated, hosted by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference and moderated by Anderson Cooper, featured a format that allowed for a rebuttal from any candidate directly attacked and encouraged such exchanges. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took issue with it at the end, saying that “maximizing bickering probably isn’t the road to the White House.”

While he endured the most attacks, Romney wasn’t the only target.

Herman Cain, the businessman who has surged in the polls recently to lead the field with Romney, endured the first pile-on of the debate, with the six other candidates all criticizing his pet 9-9-9 tax plan, which calls for replacing the current federal tax code with a 9 percent federal sales, income, and corporate tax.

For the most part, Mr. Cain took the criticisms in stride, countering that recent assessments of how his plan would affect taxpayers (released Tuesday by the Tax Policy Center) were simply wrong, and saying that many of his opponents’ criticisms were “mixing apples and oranges.”

As the last debate for about a month, many viewers were watching closely to see how Governor Perry performed. His lackluster showing in previous debates has been credited, at least in part, for his drop in the polls.

He was feistier than in recent debates, and clearly came ready to take on Romney. Despite the polls, those two candidates became the center of much of the debate, leaving Cain more on the sidelines.

In addition to battling over immigration, health care, job creation, and their record as governors, the debate gave them the first opportunity to address the controversy over one of Perry’s supporter’s comments about Romney’s Mormon faith.

Mr. Cooper asked Perry for his opinion on the comments by Pastor Robert Jeffress, who called Mormonism a cult, and Perry said he disagreed with them, though he defended Mr. Jeffress’s freedom to voice that opinion.

Romney shrugged off the Jeffress attack, saying that he’s “heard worse,” but said Perry should have condemned the remarks at the time – not because of the attack on Mormonism but because they suggested Americans should choose politicians based on their religion.

“I wanted you to be able to say, ‘that’s wrong,’” he told Perry.

The audience seemed fairly friendly to Romney, booing when the Jeffress’s comments were first mentioned, and also booing Perry when he harped one too many times on Romney’s hiring a company that used illegal immigrants. “I think we’ve been down that road, and it sounds like the audience agrees with me,” said Romney.

It’s too soon to tell how the debate will affect the candidates’ standings, but increasingly, Romney, Cain, and Perry seem to be settling into the leading triumvirate. The other four – including Santorum, Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and Gingrich – hit sounding points that have become familiar from other debates but didn't immediately appear likely to change their positioning in the Republican field.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., also a candidate, boycotted the debate over Nevada’s decision to hold its caucuses earlier than New Hampshire would like.

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