But the other leading contenders each got their turn at the bottom of the pile. Previously unflappable former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney appeared knocked off stride at times — particularly when Texas Gov. Rick Perry mentioned a 2007 episode in which Romney had hired a lawn company that employed illegal immigrants.
Perry noted that Romney himself has said “there was a magnet of people that will hire illegals,”adding: “And you are number one on that list, sir.”
At one point, a red-faced Romney shouted at Perry: “Are you just going to keep talking, or are you going to let me finish what I have to say?”
Indeed, it was a far feistier Perry who showed up for this debate, though he, too, found himself a target of the others several times, including in a testy exchange with former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who claimed that Perry had supported the 2008 government bailout of Wall Street.
“He sent a letter the day of the vote on the floor of the House saying, ‘Pass the economic plan,’ ” Santorum said, with Perry’s protest, “Wrong,” audible in the background. Perry said he was only urging Congress “to act.”
At one point near the end of the two-hour forum, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) pleaded: “Maximizing the bickering is not the best road to the White House.”
The vitriol onstage was the product of the far larger dynamic in the GOP race, at a moment when the first early-voting contest, in Iowa, is less than three months away. The normally orderly process by which Republicans select a presidential contender has this year turned into a frenzied and fickle courtship that has seen opinion polls swinging from one infatuation to the next.
The leading candidates arrived at the forum with very different goals. Romney was hoping for another sure-footed performance in hopes of tamping down persistent doubts within the party that have prevented him from turning his establishment edge into a sheen of inevitability.
Perry, whom Romney’s advisers still consider his most formidable competitor, was seeking to regain the stature he had briefly as a top-tier candidate. That stature has suffered after a series of mediocre debate performances.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who also had a moment in the political sun before fading into the shadows after Perry entered the race, was also seeking to reemerge — although the fact that she was largely ignored by her aggressive rivals suggests they no longer consider her a threat.