Whew. Can you have a debate in which nobody wins?
The seven Republican presidential candidates on the stage during the CNN debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday slapped, swatted, slashed, jabbed, picked and poked at each other for two hours. As might be expected, most of them emerged bloodier and more ragged than when they walked in.
But then, these things are contests—largely political sporting events. So if a winner must be crowned, make it Rick Perry, who showed some fire in his willingness to go toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney, whose aura of inevitability waxed and waned during the debate. Perry was just about the only candidate who has reason to smile today.
Romney, under attack for most of the night not only from Perry but from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, was at times peevish and other times rattled, particularly on the subject of immigration. At one point, Romney lost his cool and touched Perry on the shoulder as he was interrupted.
And then there was Herman Cain, the businessman who was riding a wave of media attention and surging poll numbers before Tuesday evening. Cain and his (say it with us) “9-9-9" plan were roasted from the get-go. And he didn’t help his cause by bungling answers on other issues, including the Wall Street bailouts and a theoretical prisoner transfer involving Guantanamo inmates.
Here are some of the highlights—and lowlights—from a combative evening on the Strip.
NEIN-NEIN-NEIN: The debate was an interesting exercise in taking a guy apart -- even patronizing him -- while complimenting him lavishly.
They all liked his “chutzpah,” as Romney described it, but they all thought Cain’s “9-9-9" tax plan is unworkable and “regressive,” in the words of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
“Herman Cain deserves a lot of credit,” said Gingrich. “He has us talking at least about something that matters. ... There are much more complexities than Herman lets on.” (Since Cain has never held elective office and has no honorific, everyone else spent much of the night calling him “Herman.”)
“Herman’s well meaning and I love his boldness ... but the reports are out ... 84% of Americans will pay more taxes under his plan,” said Santorum. “We’re talking about major increases in taxes on people.”
Perry perhaps made the strongest case against Cain’s plan, even while repeatedly calling him “brother.”
“Herman,” he said, “I love you, brother, but you don’t need a big analysis to figure this out. ... Go to New Hampshire. They’re not interested in 9-9-9. They’re interested in flatter and fairer. " (New Hampshire does not have a sales tax.)
As he did a week earlier at the debate in New Hampshire, Perry pledged he would provide details of his own plan in a matter of days. In other words: not here, not now.
At that time, he said, “I’ll bump plans with you, brother.”
ROMNEYCARE RESUFACES: For weeks, Romney had appeared to escape concerted attacks on the healthcare plan he helped enact in Massachusetts, one that is similar to the Democratic healthcare overhaul passed last year by Congress.
The check came due Tuesday.
But it was not Perry but Santorum, the often-overlooked former Pennsylvania senator, who then landed one of the biggest blows on Romney to date on the issue.
“You just don’t have credibility, Mitt, for repealing Obamacare,” Santorum said, arguing that the Obama administration modeled its plan after what Romney championed as governor of Massachusetts. “What you did was exactly what Barack Obama did.”
Romney argued that he never intended for his plan to be adopted on a national level -- but his rivals quickly said he had in fact endorsed that in his own autobiography, but deleted it in a new edition.
Romney also said that his plan differed from Obama’s because “we don’t have a government insurance plan. We rely on private insurers.” Obama’s own plan calls for setting up insurance exchanges in which individuals can purchase private insurance.
“I’m sorry, Rick, that you find so much to dislike in my plan. But I’ll tell you, the people of Massachusetts like it by about a 3-to-1 margin,” he said. “And we dealt with the challenge that we had, a lot of people that were expecting government to pay their way.”
Other candidates joined the pile-on.
“It’s not ‘Obamacare.’ ... But your plan essentially is one more big-government, bureaucratic, high-cost system,” Gingrich said.
‘I CAN’T HAVE ILLEGALS’: Going on offense, Perry unexpectedly revived an old controversy over Romney, while Massachusetts governor, employing a lawncare firm that hired illegal immigrants.
The immigration issue has been a liability for Perry ever since the GOP base discovered he supports in-state tuition credits for the children of illegal immigrants. Perry sought to turn the tables.
“The idea 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 as he turned to face Romney.
The accusation – which is rooted in a 2006 Boston Globe report that Romney had hired a landscaping company that employed illegal immigrants -- sparked a heated exchange between the two.
Here’s how it went. And at one point, Romney reached out and touched Perry while they were jawing. (It should be said that last month in Tampa, Perry made a similar maneuver to deflect a Romney critique on jobs.)
ROMNEY: Rick, I don’t think that I’ve ever hired an illegal in my life. And so I’m -- I’m looking forward to finding your facts on that because that just doesn’t -- just --
PERRY: I’ll tell you what the facts are. You had the --your newspaper -- the newspaper --
ROMNEY: Rick, again -- Rick, I’m speaking. I’m speaking. I’m speaking. I’m speaking.
PERRY: And it’s time for you to tell the truth.
ROMNEY: You get -- you get 30 seconds --
PERRY: It’s time for you to tell the --
ROMNEY: The way -- the way the rules work here is that I get 60 seconds.
PERRY: But no, but the American people want the truth.
ROMNEY: And you get -- and then you get 30 seconds to respond, right? Anderson --
PERRY: And they want to hear you say that you knew you had illlegals working at your.
ROMNEY: Will you please -- would you please wait? Are you just going to keep talking, or are you going to let me finish with my -- what I have to say?
ROMNEY: This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that, and so you’re going to get -- 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.
PERRY: Great, have at it.
The crowd was with Romney, as it turns out, for most of this exchange, but the former Bain Capital executive, who likes to portray himself as unflappable, had clearly lost his temper.
Turning to the immigration topic, Romney accused Perry of luring illegal immigrants to Texas by allowing their children to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges.
“You said I don’t want to build a fence,” Romney said. “You talk about magnets -- you put in place a magnet.”
Perry fired back: “You stood here in front of the American people and did not tell the truth that you had illegals working on your property.? The idea that you can sit here and talk about any of us having an immigration issue is beyond me. I’ve always been against amnesty. You, on the other hand, were for amnesty.”
Returning to the issue of the landscaping company, Romney said that when it was pointed out to him that the company had hired illegal immigrants, “we let them go.”
(The Globe, however, reported in December 2007 that Romney was still using the company.)
Romney went on to lecture Perry on debate etiquette: “You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking,” he said. “And I suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, you got to let both people speak.”
Back to the immigration issue, Romney got candid: “So we went to the company and we said, look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. That’s -- I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals. It turns out that once again they hired someone who had falsified their documents -- and therefore we fired them.”
ANCHORS AWEIGH: Immigration was perhaps the dominant issue in heavily Latino Nevada on Tuesday night, but that doesn’t mean the candidates wanted to talk about whether the 14th Amendment should be repealed.
That’s the amendment that provides citizenship to anyone born in the country, despite the immigration status of their parents.
Cain wanted no part of it, preferring to talk about, you guessed it, 9-9-9: “Until we boost this economy, all of us are going to suffer for a long time.”
Perry wanted in on more 9-9-9 bashing, but the moderator Anderson Cooper reminded him that that wasn’t the topic at hand.
The Texas governor, perhaps channeling Ronald Reagan (who famously insisted during a debate “I am paying for this microphone!”), informed Cooper “You get to ask the questions, I get to answer like I want to.”
It was Rep. Michele Bachmann who gave the question some clarity.
“The issue you are referring to is the issue of anchor babies,” said the Minnesota congresswoman, who, some suggested, was dressed in an outfit with a nautical theme, complete with epaulets. “When somebody comes illegally across the border specifically for the purpose of having a baby here.” Bachmann said she does not agree with the idea of repealing the 14th Amendment. “This is an issue we can deal with legislatively,” she said.
Santorum, who has returned again and again to the notion that he is the only candidate who cares about families, sensed another opportunity to raise his favorite topic.
“Not one person here mentioned the issue of family, faith and marriage. The basic building block of society is not the individual, it’s the family, and the Latino community understands that.”
MORMON STORM: Speaking of faith, Perry finally had an opportunity to disavow comments made by Texas pastor Robert Jeffress that likened Romney’s Mormonism to a “cult.” Did he?
Perry was careful. He preferred to focus on freedom: Freedom of expression, freedom of religion.
When asked, he said immediately that he “didn’t agree with that individual’s statement.”
Continuing, Perry said: “Our founding fathers truly understood and had an understanding of freedom of religion. We also are a country that is free to express our opinions. That individual expressed an opinion. I didn’t agree with it, Mitt, and I said so. But the fact is, Americans understand faith. And what they’ve lost faith in is the current resident of the White House.”
For his part, Romney downplayed Jeffress’ reference to Mormonism as a cult, saying, “I’ve heard worse, so I’m not going to lose sleep over that.” What was more troubling, he said, was the notion that voters ought to choose one candidate over another simply because of his or her faith.
“I don’t suggest you distance yourself from your faith any more than I would. But the concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to, I think, is a very dangerous and enormous departure from the principles of our Constitution,” Romney said.
TARP TRAP: Even Ron Paul jumped on Cain, suggesting that the former pizza executive has no sympathy for protesters who are part of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“I think Mr. Cain has blamed the victims,” the Texas Republican said. “There are a lot of people who are victims of this business cycle.”
Cain had said the protesters “are directing their anger at the wrong place. They ought to be over in front of the White House taking out their frustration.”
The back-and-forth was part of a larger debate over the role of the federal government in the recession and the Wall Street bailouts in 2008. “Guess who they bailed out?” Paul said. “The big corporations who were ripping people off in the derivatives market. Who got stuck? The middle class got stuck.”
Santorum got into a tussle with Perry, accusing him of supporting the bailouts, a contention Perry has repeatedly denied. The controversy stems from a letter Perry sent to Capitol Hill as the financial markets collapsed, urging Congress to act.
But, Perry maintained, he didn’t mean the bailouts of Wall Street banks and the auto industry.
Cain also was tripped up by the TARP issue, suggesting that he supported the bailouts but once he saw the American public’s resistance, he changed his mind.
“I have said before that we were in a crisis at the end of 2008 with this potential financial meltdown. I supported the concept of TARP, but then when this administration used discretion and did a whole lot of things that the American people didn’t like, I was
then against it,” he said. “So yes -- and I’m owning up to that.”
GITMO GAFFE: Cain had some more owning up to do after the debate.
He was asked about remarks he made earlier in the day during a CNN interview about whether he would consider a prisoner exchange involving suspected terrorists jailed at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and an American soldier, similar to the deal that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit along with more than 1,000 Palestinians.
It has been a longstanding policy of the United States not to negotiate with terrorist groups, but Cain didn’t say that.
“I could see myself authorizing that kind of transfer but what I would do is I would make sure that I got all of the information,” Cain told CNN before the debate. “I got all of the input, considered all of the options. And then, the president has to be the president and make a judgment call. I can make that call if I had to.”
Cain was asked about his comments during the debate, but said he did not recall making them.
“You would have to consider the entire situation. But let me say this first: I would have a policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists. We have to lay that principle down first,” Cain said. “Now, then you have to look at each individual situation and consider all the facts. The point that I made about this particular situation is that I’m sure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to consider a lot of things before he made that. So on the surface, I don’t think we can say he did the right thing or not. A responsible decision-maker would have considered everything.”
Bachmann called Cain’s position “naive.”
After the debate, Cain told CNN’s Cooper that he “misspoke” during the previous interview and that, as president, he would not consider such a transfer. But the episode probably will provide more fodder to critics who say that Cain lacks a firm grasp of foreign policy.
So after all that, now what? Has Cain lost his Hermanmentum? Mitt his mojo? Has Perry launched his comeback? Are voters simply ready to default to President Gingrich and have the madness end?
The race promises to grow wilder still, even as the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire loom and the campaign becomes measured in weeks and days rather than months.