It was Fight Night in Las Vegas on Tuesday, and for arguably the first time this year, Mitt Romney took some body blows.
Romney generally acquitted himself well and even got in some jabs of his own at Tuesday’s CNN debate in Nevada, but the totality of the attacks left their mark on a candidate who has been more the Teflon candidate than a punching bag early in the 2012 campaign.
Perhaps most notably, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) actually made some headway Tuesday night. After some troubled performances in the last few debates, Perry launched a new attack (new to this campaign, at least; it had beenbeen used in the 2008 campaign) on Romney for hiring a landscaping service that employed illegal immigrants.
In addition, former senator Rick Santorum (R) said Romney has no credibility on repealing President Obama’s health care bill because of a similar bill Romney spearheaded as Massachusetts governor, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) joined in the attack on Romneycare.
The Perry exchange seemed to get under Romney’s skin more than the others. And as Perry kept pressing the point and interrupting Romney, Romney became visibly angry and actually put his hand on Perry’s shoulder for a moment. Then, he got a little personal.
“It’s been a tough couple of debates for Rick, so I understand it,” Romney said in response to that attacks, adding: “You have a problem with allowing people to finish speaking.”
The attack has yet to play out completely, but it was arguably the first time that Romney was out of his element on the debate stage. (Of course, it wasn’t the first time he has awkwardly pleaded with someone to let him speak.)
Romnney got into a similar exchange with Santorum over his health care bill, in which Santorum — like Perry — kept Romney a little off his game by repeatedly interrupting him. Romney eventually said that he wouldn’t want the Massachusetts health care plan for every state.
The exchange with Gingrich, though, went a little better. When Gingrich brought up the health care issue, Romney baited the former House speaker into acknowledging that he himself had once supported an individual health care mandate — perhaps the most controversial part of both Romney’s and Obama’s health care bills.
Then, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), as she often did Tuesday night, refocused the debate on Obama, saving Romney some trouble by changing the subject.
Romney’s attacks were also instructive.
He said Perry’s presidential bona fides are like “the college coach that has lost 40 games in a row has the experience to go to the NFL,” and he noted Perry’s support for Al Gore in the 1988 presidential campaign. He also got in an effective hit on Cain by pointing out that the 9 percent sales tax in Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan would come on top of any state sales taxes.
Cain tried to say the state and federal taxes were “apples and oranges.”
“And I’m going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it because I’ve got to pay both taxes, and the people in Nevada don’t want to pay both taxes,” Romney said.
In making the attack, Romney went outside of the debate’s rules by posing a direct question to Cain.
It was his first moment on camera — besides introductions — and he wasted no time getting in on what was already a pretty pugilistic debate.
Romney won most of the rounds; the question is how much damage he sustained in the rounds he didn’t. We just don’t know the answer to that yet.
Other highlights from the debate: Some other moments worth recalling:
* Cain backed off his position from earlier in the day that he would consider negotiating the release of prisoners for a hostage, saying he wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists. And after the debate, Cain said he misspoke when he suggested he might trade hundreds of Guantanamo Bay detainees for a U.S. soldier.
* Cain dismissed independent analyses that his 9-9-9 plan would raise taxes on most Americans, pointing to an analysis done for his campaign.
* For the first time, Gingrich showed a willingness to attack. Bachmann, on the other hand, did not.
* Even as Romney was taking a lot of attacks, the Nevada crowd was friendly and defended him Remember, this is a state where Romney took more than 51 percent in the 2008 caucuses.
* Santorum tied to draw out Perry, Romney and Cain on their past statements supportive of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout. But only Perry got into a back and forth with Santorum.
* Perry seemed a little unprepared for a questions about the pastor supporting his campaign who compared Mormonism to “a cult.” He said he disagrees with the comments but didn’t repudiate them.
Paul ad hits Cain, Romney and Perry on TARP: Ron Paul’s campaign continues to go up with some strong ads — this time hitting the three frontrunners in the GOP presidential race for their sentiments on TARP and Obama’s stimulus.
Paul’s newest ad features video of Cain expressing support for the concept of the bailout and Romney saying an economic stimulus was needed. It notes Perry also expressed some support for a bailout.
All three men have distanced themselves from the financial packages, but the attacks remain potent in a GOP primary where both are poisonous.
The ad will run in the early states and is a big buy — in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to CNN.
Meanwhile, a Paul-supporting PAC goes up with an ad labeling Romney and Perry “prettyboys.”
Cain gets a super PAC: He stumbled in last night’s debate. But there’s some good news for Cain: he has his own super PAC, Americans for Herman Cain.
These committees, made possible by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, can raise unlimited sums and directly attack candidates. Cain’s super PAC is being organized by Jordan Gehrke, a GOP strategist who has worked for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Senate candidates Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, as well as a somewhat controversial direct-mail firm.
The group is out with a web ad attacking Perry and Romney, asking, “What if we didn’t have to choose between the lesser of two evils this year?”
Conservatives turn on Perry: Perry’s rise and fall in the Republican presidential race has been due largely to conservatives abandoning him, according to new Washington Post-ABC News polling.
The poll shows unfavorable views of Perry have tripled among conservative Republicans, from 7 percent in September to 26 percent today. Meanwhile, his favorable rating stayed at 55 percent.
Perry’s favorable rating among all voters is 12 points lower than his unfavorable rating, with 26 percent liking the Texas governor and 38 percent disliking him.
Meanwhile, the word most that poll respondents most commonly associate with Perry is “Texas.” For Romney, it’s “Mormon,” and for Cain — not surprisingly — it’s “9-9-9.”
Cain gives a confused answer on abortion.
A new NBC News/Marist poll in South Carolina shows Cain at 30 percent and Romney at 26 percent. In Florida, Cain is at 32 percent, and Romney is at 31 percent. Nobody else cracks doubt digits in either state.
Ron Paul makes nice with Sean Hannity.
Ricardo Sanchez’s (D) Texas Senate campaign continues to struggle with fundraising — big time.
Rummy raises money for Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.).
Tim Pawlenty takes a job in the business world.
Obama sets another record for deporting illegal immigrants.
“‘Next in Line’ Redux for Romney?” — Charlie Cook, National Journal
“GOP 2012 agenda: What energy debate?” — Alex Guillen, Politico
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.