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Tracking the Nevada Debate: GOP Field Erupts in Las Vegas Prize Fight

National Journal gives you the highlights and lowlights of Tuesday's debate as they unfold


Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry speak during a Republican presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas.  (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Tuesday’s debate was the tilt that should have happened six weeks ago.

No one can fault the candidates for timidity any longer. Perhaps it was this week’s bustle around primary dates, or the pent-up energy from last week’s subdued economic roundtable, or the realization that the looming television ad war is about to change the tone anyway.


Whatever the cause, the CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference Debate was the Republican presidential primary’s liveliest yet. Texas Gov. Rick Perry showed up, finally. Former Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain started strongly in defense of his controversial tax plan before seeming to wilt when the debate topics ranged. And eternal front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, weathered perhaps the most effective attacks yet on his Massachusetts health care plan, and engaged to an unprecedented extent with the challengers seeking to unhorse him.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich summarized the debate near its close as “maximizing bickering.”

The evening’s most memorable moment came when Perry deflected moderator Anderson Cooper’s question about the Lone Star State’s low health insurance rate for children and, instead, attacked Romney over a years-old controversy about Romney hiring a lawn care company that employed illegal immigrants. The duo quickly flashed into a nose-to-nose confrontation, talking over each other, and Romney reaching over and seemingly grabbing Perry’s shoulder.


That followed an exchange in which former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum attacked Romney’s credibility in criticizing President Obama’s health care expansion. Romney battled back so aggressively that the two talked over each other, a conversation that dove further into unintelligibility when Perry jumped in to defend Santorum’s position.

Despite scattered stumbles, Perry delivered his most energetic performance yet, parrying attacks from Romney and Santorum and repeatedly going on offense against Romney. His lackluster showings in his four previous debates have fueled Perry’s slide in the polls, while Romney’s sustained debating has helped keep him atop the heap.

While Cain took much of the heat early over his 9-9-9 plan, it was the showdown between the two governors that drove the debate. It was just what was expected when Perry showed up at his first debate at the Reagan Library last month. Some highlights and lowlights:

Perry v. Romney

A flashpoint came during Perry's answer to a question about Texas’s low insurance rate for children. In a bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu, he flipped into an attack on Romney for hiring illegal immigrants, a reference to Romney's hiring of a lawn care firm that employed illegal immigrants. 


Romney has said he "gave the company a second chance" after asking it to ensure its employees were legal to work in the United States, and he only severed ties after a newspaper report about a year later reported that illegal immigrants were still working on Romney's property. The two went almost literally nose-to-nose, with Romney at one point touching Perry on the shoulder. “A tough couple of debates for Rick,” Romney sniped.

Perry's attack created an opening for a Romney misstep that could come back to haunt him. Explaining his rationale for severing ties with the lawn care firm, Romney said: "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals." It's a comment that will only feed an image that Romney's opponents have tried to promote: that of a politician who operates on expediency not principle.

When Perry cut in, Romney retorted, “You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking and I’d suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, you’ve got to let both people speak.” Later, Perry tried to swing the momentum back against Romney, saying, “You’re one of the problems, Mitt.” Smiling and shaking his head, Romney cited crowd boos as a reason to move on. 

Romney's "I'm running for office" remark, his 2008 campaign adviser Alex Castellanos said, drew attention to an already established weakness. "It reveals political thinking," Castellanos said. "It’s the point of view of a politician, and that’s a vulnerability for Romney, that he’s calculating."

Religion and politics

If the 2012 campaign had commandments, high on anybody’s top 10 would be that Mitt Romney is not going to get tripped up on religion questions. When moderator Anderson Cooper posed a question based on Rick Perry backer pastor Robert Jeffress’s charge that Mormonism is a cult, Romney played the peacemaker, saying it was sufficient for Perry to say he doesn't agree with Jeffress.

Perry did not, however, repudiate the pastor, and Romney criticized him for what he called a "troubling" suggestion that a candidate's religious preference should prove determinative rather than the “plurality of faiths” Romney said the Founders intended. Picking a president based on where the person worships, he said, would be an “enormous departure from the principles of our Constitution.” Romney’s problem, of course, is that many voters in the Republican primary do think religious preference is determinative, which may be why he doesn't want to raise the possibility he might be a victim of religious bigotry -- any more than Barack Obama wanted to raise the possibility of racial bigotry in 2008.

Cain in the crosshairs

Former pizza executive Herman Cain, suddenly at or near the top of national polls, immediately became the focal point of Tuesday night's presidential debate in Las Vegas, but seemed to enjoy his role.

The first question, about taxes, triggered a barrage of criticism of the former pizza executive's signature 9-9-9 plan to replace the current tax code with a nine percent tax on personal income, corporations and sales.

Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney all criticized Cain's plan as unworkable or unfair but Cain came prepared.  “It is a jobs plan, it is revenue-neutral, it does not raise taxes on those that are making the least.” He said “lobbyists, accountants, politicians” were hoping to block a “simple and fair” plan from replacing the “10 million word mess” that he said the current tax code is.

When Santorum cited a study’s conclusion that 84 percent of Americans would pay more under Cain’s plan, Cain answered, “That simply is not true.” In crisp, clearly prepared answers, Cain repeatedly invited voters to study his campaign’s own analysis. While his rivals appeared eager to pile on, they also paid tacit tribute to Cain's sudden popularity. "I love his boldness," said Santorum. Gingrich added that Cain deserves credit for setting the tone for a serious debate.

'Romneycare' fireworks

Here’s the fierce of criticism of Romney’s health care plan some conservatives have hoped for: Santorum said Romney’s previous support in Massachusetts for an individual mandate raises doubts about whether he’d repeal President Obama’s health care bill.

“Governor Romney, you don't have credibility when it comes to ‘Obamacare,’” Santorum said. “Your plan was the basis for ‘Obamacare.’ To say you're going to repeal it -- you have no track record on that that we can trust you that you're going to do that.”

Romney began to defend himself, but Santorum repeatedly interrupted him. Perry even chipped in as the two men argued, saying the former Massachusetts governor had removed parts of his book about his health-care bill.

“I tell you what? Why don't you let me speak, Rick,” said Romney. “You had your chance, why don't you let me speak?”

The ex- Bay State governor had largely avoided intense scrutiny in previous debates, but it seems his rivals are intent on attacking him tonight over what might be his most sensitive issue. Gingrich called Romney’s plan a bureaucratic mess, before Romney shot back that he got the idea for an individual mandate from Gingrich.

GOP to world: Fuggedaboutit

Where would Republican presidential candidates cut first? Foreign aid.

The GOP field –- including Romney and Perry -- were almost unanimous in calling for big cuts in the foreign almost unanimously agreed they could cut financial support for other countries.

Perry said the entire United Nations should be on the chopping block. “I think it's time not only to have that entire debate about all of our foreign aid, but in particular the U.N.,” he said, drawing cheers from the crowd. “Why are we funding that organization?”

Romney argued the country needs to solve its own debt problems before handing out aid to foreign nations.

“It doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to give it to another country for humanitarian aid,” he said. “We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people.”

The only exception to their united front: Israel. Paul said he would not spare the Jewish state from the budget axe, arguing that U.S. aid makes Israel dependent. But most of his rivals took a different tack. “Cutting foreign aid,” said Bachmann, “is one thing.” Israel another.

“Israel is our greatest ally. The biggest problem is the fact that the president -- the biggest problem with this administration in foreign policy is that President Obama is the first president since Israel declared their sovereignty put daylight between the United States and Israel. That heavily contributed to the current hostilities that we see in the Middle East region.”

Perry: Don't fence me in

Defending himself on a controversial issue that has dogged his campaign, Perry insisted that building a border fence to stop illegal immigration is a bad idea.

“The way you really stop (illegal immigration) … is to put boots on the ground,” Perry said. “I will tell you, you put a lot of boots on the ground. You use predator drones that are being trained right up here in the air force base in Nevada to use that real-time information to give those boots on the ground that information.”

Texas’s policy of granting in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants –- and Perry’s strong defense of that policy -- has raised hackles among Republican conservatives. When Perry tried to put the blame on the federal government lax border security, Romney scoffed that Perry claiming experience on immigration is "a bit like saying the college coach that has lost 40 games in a row to go to the NFL.”

Occupy Romney

Romney dodged a direct question about his opinion of the Occupy Wall Street movement, saying what caused the economic collapse is not as important as the president’s poor economic stewardship afterward.

“Over the last three years we've had a president responsible for this economy for the last three years and he's failed us,” Romney said. “He's failed us in part because he has no idea how the private sector works or how to create jobs. On every single issue he's made it harder for our economy to reboot.”

The left-leaning movement has become tricky territory for Republican politicians, with many polls showing that, at least for now, it’s popular with the public. But criticizing it is still a golden opportunity for a GOP candidate to serve red meat to the conservative base, and Romney’s dodge indicates he's looking past the nomination fight to November.

The ex-governor seemed to make one faux pas: He said the president did not have a jobs plan. Obama has touted for months a roughly $450 billion jobs plan to boost the country’s employment.

Lone Star Shining

Who’s this Texas governor on stage? In his first remarks Tuesday night, Perry had perhaps his best debate moment yet. He described himself in his introduction as "an authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience," a not so subtle jab at Romney, whom Perry has accused of flip flopping on health care, among other things. Then he landed a series of body blows on Cain’s “9-9-9” plan.

“Herman, I love you, brother, but you don't need to have a big analysis to figure this thing out,” he said. “Go to New Hampshire, where they don't have a sales tax, and you're fixing to give them one. They're not interested in 9-9-9. What they're interested in is flatter and fairer.”

Perry, who unveiled an energy plan late last week, said he’d reveal more of his economic agenda later this week. Strategically, it makes sense for him to attack Cain, who has supplanted him the polls as the conservative alternative to Romney. Perry’s pervious four debates have been marred by stumbling responses that have left some doubting he’s a credible choice for president.

Huntsman MIA

Tonight’s GOP presidential debate will be without one familiar voice: Ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is at this hour bragging about his absence from the Las Vegas stage at a town hall meeting in Hopkinton, N.H. "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," Huntsman crowed to enthusiastic applause, according to National Journal/CBS New campaign reporter Lindsey Boerma, who is at the event. In an email released minutes before the debate was to begin, Huntsman says he has chosen to "show my solidarity" with the Granite State's efforts to put some distance between its first-in-the-nation primary and Nevada's proposed Jan. 14 caucus date. Granite State officials are threatening to move their primary date as far up as early as December.

Huntsman has seized on the chance to stand up for the state, which he is focusing on exclusively to resuscitate his thus far disappointing campaign. During the first of two town halls held in New Hampshire on Tuesday – he’s holding another during the debate – he criticized the rest of the field for ignoring the Granite State.

“All I can say is they’re missing out on a huge opportunity by not embracing a total boycott of the Nevada caucus and doing what the New Hampshire voters would expect,” said Huntsman. “And that’s to stand in a town hall meeting, delivering a vision for this country, and taking questions from average voters here. I think that’s where the action is, that’s what going to ultimately allow one to win the New Hampshire primary, and in a critical time when we need to be discussing our economy and how we’re gonna create jobs, that’s how it’s done. So I’m happy to be here.”

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