LAS VEGAS — The GOP presidential candidates took off the gloves and went straight for the jugular Tuesday in a no-holds-barred debate that signaled a Republican field frantic to differentiate themselves before it’s too late.
Coming at the end of an exhausting series of five debates in six weeks, Tuesday’s CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference debate revealed the hopefuls unhinged and quicker to make sharp, personal attacks than at any other point in the campaign season thus far.
For Perry, it was a high-octane performance that his supporters had been eagerly awaiting after his lackluster showing in previous debates fed his decline in the polls. But audience members booed some of Perry’s attacks on Romney, and he risked appearing undisciplined by continually speaking over the former Massachusetts governor.
For Romney, the multi-front assault he absorbed seemed to bolster his aura as the inevitable nominee biding his time while the other candidates run out the clock. And for Cain, the relentless chipping away at his signature 9-9-9 economic plan questioned whether the businessman could stand up to the scrutiny brought on by his rapid climb in the polls, where he is now in even territory with Romney.
Time and again, Romney and Perry screamed over each other while host Anderson Cooper seemed unable to maintain order.
“Are you just going to keep talking?” Romney said, his voice escalating with angst and his hand firmly planted on Perry’s shoulder as he tried to quiet the Texas governor. “You have a problem with allowing somebody else to finish speaking. And I would suggest that if you want to become president of the United States you've got to let both people speak."
At another point, Romney told Perry: "I'm speaking. I'm speaking. I'm speaking. You get 30 seconds. This is the way the rules work here, is that I get 60 seconds and then you get 30 second to respond. Right?" as Cooper struggled to be heard over the two men.
Meanwhile, instead of attacking Romney’s economic platform as he and other candidates have done in the past, Perry set his aim much closer to home, accusing Romney of violating the law by employing illegal immigrants. In previous debates, Romney attacked Perry for giving in-state college tutition to illegal immigrants.
“Mitt, you lose all of your standing from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year, and the fact that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy,” Perry said.
An investigation in 2007 by the Boston Globe alleged that Romney, through a landscaping company, had hired undocumented immigrants at his mansion, but Romney denied any knowledge of it, noting he could not know who the contractors he used hired to do the manual labor.
He also got in a dig at Perry: "This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that. And so you're going to get testy."
At one point, Perry and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) jumped on Romney simultaneously, accusing him of trying to double back on his record of promoting a healthcare plan in Massachusetts, which later helped guide President Obama’s plan that Republicans detest.
“You took it out of your book,” Perry interjected.
“You can’t change the facts. You’re out of time,” Santorum exclaimed.
Romney smiled calmly, working to revive his favored role as the “adult in the room” while the others did their best to make something stick.
"I haven't had a chance to respond yet, because you were interrupting the entire time I was trying to speak," he said. "I was asked about the Massachusetts plan, was it something I'd impose on the nation? And the answer is absolutely not. It was something crafted for a state. And I've said time and again, Obamacare is bad news. It's unconstitutional. It costs way too much money, a trillion dollars. And if I'm president of the United States, I will repeal it for the American people."
“You just don't have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare,” Santorum said. “Your plan was the basis for Obamacare.”
"I'm sorry, Rick, that you find so much to dislike in my plan, but I'll tell you, the people in Massachusetts like it by about a 3-1 margin," Romney responded.
The candidates also wasted no time assailing Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, with every single candidate, starting with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and continuing down the line, using their first chance to speak to argue Cain’s tax plan is poorly considered, regressive and dangerous.
Cain’s plan would set federal income and corporate taxes at 9 percent and create a new 9 percent national sales tax.
“One thing I know about being a member of Congress for five years is any time you give Congress a brand new tax, it doesn’t go away,” Bachmann said.
But it was Romney who was the most unrelenting against the candidate who was a relative unknown just weeks ago but is now threatening Romney’s place at the front of the pack.
“Will the people in Nevada not have to pay Nevada sales tax in addition?” Romney asked pointedly.
Cain repeated over and over his insistence that those launching attacks on his plan are using false premises in their analyses and comparing apples to oranges, because his plan throws out the existing tax code and starts from scratch.
“And I’m going to be getting a bushel basket in it that has both apples and oranges?” Romney retorted.
Various analyses by economists, Cain’s opponents and the media since Cain began his climb have revealed that his plan could force the lower and middle class to pay more while giving wealthier individuals a break. An analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center released hours before the debate affirmed that the wealthy fare better under the plan.
Perry got in a shot at Cain's plan too, saying: "Herman, I love you, brother, but let me tell you something, you don't need to have a big analysis to figure this thing out. 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."
But the magnetic interest Cain has sparked in the political arena was on full display. When reporters swarmed Cain at his dais in the spin room immediately after the debate, photographers climbed atop Bachman's empty dais to get a better shot at Cain.
A clash over religion, and specifically the Mormon faith that Romney practices, re-erupted Tuesday, less than two weeks after it became one of the campaign’s most touchy subjects when a pastor endorsing Perry called Mormonism a cult at the Value Voters Summit in Washington.
The audience in Nevada, which has a large Mormon population, booed when the religion was called a cult.
“I happen to think that none of us should rush in judgment of others in the way in which they approach God. And I think that all of us up here I believe would agree,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Perry, who has said he disagrees with his supporter’s views, again declined to distance himself from the pastor, while Santorum brought up his Catholic faith and said a candidate’s religion should be fair game in evaluating what values figure in to a candidate’s approach to policy.
Romney, who's faith is viewed suspiciously by some evangelicals, answered the question carefully.
"With regards to the disparaging comments about my faith, I've heard worse, so I'm not going to lose sleep over that," he said. "What I actually found was most troubling in what the reverend said in the introduction was he said, in choosing our nominee, we should inspect his religion. ... That idea that we should choose people based upon their religion for public office is what I find to be most troubling."
Asked about the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in New York City and has expanded throughout the U.S., Cain said the anger was misplaced, faulting Obama for all of the country’s economic problems.
“I think Mr. Cain has blamed the victims,” said Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). “There’s a lot of people who are victims of this business cycle.”
Outside the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas where candidates were debating, hundreds had gathered in protest in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Protesters bore signs demonizing “fat cats” in the banking industry and yelled as audience members arrived for the debate.
Paul repeated his frequent claim that the Federal Reserve should be blamed for disastrous monetary policy, but under the surface was a barb at Cain: The Georgia businessman chaired the Fed branch in Kansas City during the 1990s.
Absent from Tuesday’s debate was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R), who boycotted it over an ongoing dispute about the 2012 primary calendar. Nevada, the other early voting states have been engaged for weeks in a tug-of-war, with each state trying to maintain its place in the order while the whole calendar gets shuffled earlier into the year.
Nevada’s decision to hold its contest on Jan. 14 put New Hampshire in a bind, leading to Huntsman’s decision to boycott both the debate and Nevada’s caucuses. Bachmann, Santorum, Cain and Gingrich are also boycotting the caucuses. Romney is making a big play for Nevada, which he won in 2008. He opened a campaign office in the state on Monday.
The GOP hopefuls will have a few weeks respite from facing each other on stage — Tuesday marked the eighth debate of the season — before appearing together once again for a foreign policy debate on Nov. 15.