For weeks, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney cruised through the GOP primary with an odd advantage. Even though everything, including poll numbers and endorsement, was going his way, the divided Republican field wasn't treating him like a front-runner. Too preoccupied with battling each other, Romney's opponents let his weak spots go untargeted.
That changed Tuesday night in Las Vegas, where candidates took turns taking swings at Romney in an unusually boisterous and, at times, tense debate. Romney showed some vulnerabilities, but also showed that he could take a punch. And, luckily for him, the contest to see who can be the "not-Romney" candidate doesn't show any signs of narrowing down.
Much of the debate centered on illegal immigration. Battered for weeks as weak on the issue, Texas Gov. Rick Perry finally found a way to fight back on the issue, unearthing the four-year-old story that Romney used a lawn service that employed undocumented workers. The story is already a well-known blot on Romney's political career. Yes, Romney continued to use the service for a year after they reassured him they had stopped using illegal immigrants, only finally firing the company after a new such allegation arose in 2007. Yes, he claims he has never knowingly hired an undocumented worker. Still, the testy exchange between Romney and Perry over the issue left Romney red-faced and flustered. Perry called Romney's tough anti-immigration stance the "height of hypocrisy," and as the two interrupted each other in between jabs, Romney poked Perry over his past debate flops. "This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that. And so you're going to get testy," Romney said.
Romney had previously been on the offensive on illegal immigration, attacking the governor for a program which allows the children of illegal aliens to receive in-state tuition from Texas public universities, and for his comments claiming that a border fence would be ineffective. Rather than defend himself, a strategy which hadn't worked in past debates, Perry looked more comfortable and energetic fighting back.
The clashes weren't just over immigration, however. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich took turns blasting Romney's healthcare overhaul in Massachusetts, with Santorum comparing it to President Obama's healthcare law. Perry criticized Romney's record on jobs, claiming that job growth in Massachusetts was meager when compared to Texas. Romney did a decent job parrying both attacks. In a back-and-forth with Gingrich, Romney got him to admit that he had once supported the individual mandate, the requirement to buy healthcare insurance that is a crucial linchpin to both Romney's and Obama's plans.
As expected, there was some fire for businessman Herman Cain, too, over his "9-9-9" tax plan, which would implement 9 percent sales, corporate, and income tax rates for the country. Cain did his best to defend the proposal, but he may have hit his ceiling as a candidate. Texas Rep. Ron Paul continued to fire up his legions of passionate supporters with broadsides against the Federal Reserve and the government, and may have won over a few converts with attacks on Wall Street, but he still faces a lot of skepticism from GOP voters over his nontraditional views.
Perry supporters were excited to see a bit of energy from their candidate, who looked like he was fighting to keep himself awake in last week's debate. But did the personal attack on Romney's character work to bring in new converts? "I thought it was kind of a cheap shot," said Republican consultant John Feehery. "Perry performed better than he has in the past. He showed some Texas bravado. But he didn't land a convincing enough blow to knock [Romney] out of the race." Though the footage of Romney and Perry angrily trying to stop the other from speaking isn't going to do Romney any favors as it plays repeatedly on the cable networks, Romney may have won this simply by surviving. He was on friendly turf. Nevada has a strong Mormon population and the debate crowd seemed to be on Romney's side, booing Perry during some of the exchanges.