LAS VEGAS—Fittingly enough for a debate held in one of this gambling mecca's glitzy hotels, seven GOP contenders rolled the dice much more aggressively Tuesday night than in their other recent encounters. Here are five key takeaways from the latest GOP debate:
1. This was the most confrontational debate yet for the Republican field, which reflected the growing stakes for all the contenders; if you listened carefully it was possible to hear the clock ticking toward the first contest approaching no later than Jan. 3 in Iowa. Rick Perry was far more energetic than in recent debates; Rick Santorum effectively played the role of provocateur from the right; and Mitt Romney faced the sharpest challenges he’s confronted in any recent debate. And while the tone wasn’t as nasty, the criticism of Herman Cain’s "9-9-9" tax plan from everyone else on the stage was panoramic. In the fierce exchange over immigration with Perry -- with each man volubly talking over the other -- Romney seemed to lose his cool for the first time. With Perry’s forceful performance, and the broad attacks on Cain, it’s possible that this debate may be seen, in retrospect, as the moment when the Texas governor began to reclaim the pole position as Romney’s chief rival from the right.
The debate also encapsulated the dynamics that have made this the most wide open Republican race since 1940, which brings us to point two:
2. After avoiding the spotlight in most recent debates, Romney received a vivid reminder of the obstacles that are preventing him from expanding his support among the most conservative half of the GOP electorate. Romney started strong with a confident and comprehensive answer about the economy, and generally held his ground under the assault from Perry and Santorum. Romney even opened a new front in his struggle with Perry over immigration by charging that Texas has seen a substantial increase in illegal immigration while the problem has abated in Florida and California. Yet the renewed salvos from Santorum (echoed by Newt Gingrich) on Romney’s Massachusetts health care law, and from Perry over Romney’s record on immigration (both his employment of a lawn care company that hired illegal immigrants and his favorable comments toward legislation that established a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants) showed why Romney can’t bury the issues that prevent him from closing the sale with many conservatives. Both Perry and Santorum sought to reopen an even deeper vulnerability by suggesting, on each issue, that Romney lacked credibility because his previous actions contrasted with his positions today.
After the debate, senior Romney adviser Stu Stevens scoffed at the idea that Perry could position himself as a more authentic conservative than the former Massachusetts governor. “There is one guy up there who doesn’t want to build a fence [along the border], who is for tuition tax benefits for illegal immigrants and who was Al Gore’s state chairman [in 1988],” Stevens said. But Ray Sullivan, Perry’s communications director, said questions about Romney’s sincerity “will continue to come out in this campaign.” And the debate may have offered a road map to the negative television ads Romney eventually may face from his opponents, especially Perry.
3. The debate also demonstrated why it has been so difficult for any of his rivals to fully benefit from that conservative unease about Romney. So far, perhaps the most important dynamic in the GOP race has been the inability of any candidate to consolidate support from the overlapping circles of tea party supporters, evangelical Christians, and blue-collar Republicans resistant to the former Massachusetts governor. Those voters are now boosting Herman Cain: He led Romney by more than 2-to-1 among self-described tea party supporters in this week’s CNN/ORC poll that showed the two men in a statistical dead heat overall.
But Tuesday’s debate offered reason to question whether Cain can sustain that support any more lastingly than Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry -- both of whom rose, and then fell, in the polls as their tea party enthusiasm briefly swelled and then quickly dissipated earlier this year.
Like Perry in earlier debates, Cain on Tuesday faced a flurry of attacks from the right, primarily on the implications of his 9-9-9 tax plan. Bachmann charged that it would make it easier for Washington to raise taxes, Santorum insisted it would hurt families and raise taxes on most taxpayers, Ron Paul denounced it as regressive, Perry complained that it would hurt housing prices and raise sales taxes to unacceptable levels, and Romney denounced it as a burden on the middle class. Cain didn’t crumble, but he offered little more in defense than the repeated insistence that the charges were incorrect. In the spin room after the debate, both Perry and Romney strategists expressed confidence that Cain’s vague responses would raise more questions than they answer for voters. “He’s made his campaign about one thing -- 9-9-9 -- and if he can’t defend it he’s in trouble,” insisted Ron Kaufman, a senior Romney adviser. “And tonight he couldn’t get over the bar in terms of putting some meat on 9-9-9.”
4. Perry had his best showing in recent debates. Right from the outset, the Texas governor was much more forceful than in recent encounters; his language was direct and unflinching (at one point he said unequivocally that Romney had “failed as a governor”; at another he called Romney's record on illegal immigration "the height of hypocrisy."). Perry seemed to swing and miss at points, and he still has a long way to go to regain the ground he’s lost in recent weeks. But for the first time, he showed how he might begin to climb back up that hill.
5. The ideological pressure in the primary race continues to drive the candidates toward positions that could cause the eventual nominee headaches in the general election. Asked about the housing crisis, none of the candidates offered specific responses beyond general promises to create more jobs or reduce government involvement in the housing market. And the progressively escalating confrontation over illegal immigration could make it more difficult for the GOP to harvest the discontent with President Obama among Hispanics that is evident in recent polls.