The Republican presidential race is entering a new, more acrimonious phase.
There will be more debates similiar to last night's harsh and angry encounter in Las Vegas. But from now on, the premium will be on other aspects of the campaign, especially television advertising and face-to-face "retail" politicking among voters in the caucus states of Iowa and the primary state of New Hampshire. Both those states will hold their nominating contests in the next 90 days, and South Carolina, Nevada and Florida will also be in the mix.
As the candidates demonstrated last night, the time for kid gloves is over. Anyone with a real chance to be nominated will face more scrutiny and harsher attacks. That's what happened to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the front runner in most polls who seemed more than a bit off balance in exchanges with his rivals over immigration, health care and his reputation as a flip-flopper. [Read: GOP Contenders Turn Fire on Eachother.]
In an argument with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Romney showed a rare grumpiness. "This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick," a piqued Romney said to Perry during a heated argument. "I understand that, and so you're going to get testy. But let's let--I'll tell you what--let me take my time and then you can take your time."
For his part, Perry showed more feistiness and confidence than he had in previous debates, but many Republicans still wonder if he has the right stuff for a long and tough campaign. [Read: When Cain's Not Able, Will Gingrich Be Next in Line?]
Herman Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO who has been surging in popularity, also came under attack by his rivals. He declined to discuss in detail his "9-9-9" plan for tax reform, which calls for reductions of personal income and corporate tax rates to 9 percent and a new 9 percent national sales tax. His competitors said it would actually increase the tax burden on the middle class. Cain denied it, but didn't go into specifics. "I invite people to look at our analysis which we make available," he said. Cain's response fueled criticism that he isn't sufficiently familiar with the issues. [See a collection of political cartoons on the GOP hopefuls.]
All this fussing was only the preliminary to the main event—the runup to the actual casting of votes in Iowa and the other early states. There have been five debates in the past six weeks, and there has been little clarity on the ultimate outcome.The Republicans still have a basic decision to make—whether to choose Romney, the former businessman who has the potential to be a strong general-election candidate even though he faces deep skepticism among conservatives, or an "anti-Romney" who is more appealing to Tea Party activists and others on the right.
That will be the subtext of the next three months.