Rick Perry Comes to Life, and He Really Doesn't Like Mitt Romney

After Tuesday night's brutal Republican debate in Las Vegas, the candidates could use a break from each other

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LAS VEGAS -- The CNN-sponsored GOP primary debate here was a free-for-all that left no doubt about Mitt Romney's role as the lone front-runner. But it also revealed his weaknesses in unprecedented fashion. Seven takeaways from a Vegas fight night:

1. Rick Perry has awakened...and it's personal. The Texas governor, so somnolent in his first four debates, came to life Tuesday -- and he got under Mitt Romney's skin. In a clip we'll be seeing over and over for the next few days, Perry turned to Romney and said, "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 idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you're strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy."

Romney shook his head and laughed heartily. As he started to defend himself -- "I don't think I've ever hired an illegal in my life" -- Perry cut in to contradict him, and that's when Romney got testy, refusing to let Perry interrupt and demanding over and over, "I'm speaking. I'm speaking. I'm speaking. ... Are you just going to keep talking?"

It was a moment that epitomized the debate: The suddenly feisty Perry; the piling on Romney, whose strong debate performances have only sharpened his rivals' desire to draw blood; the candidates' descent into childish, me-first squabbling; and Romney's patience wearing thin, to potentially damaging effect.

Perry succeeded in baiting Romney, but did he dynamite himself in the process? The audience, which seemed to be a pro-Romney crowd, booed Perry's attacks more than once. Perry had finally stirred ... but he looked mean. His answers were plagued by perplexing pauses, where he seemed to struggle to come up with concepts as central as the 10th Amendment. He put himself back in the fight but continued to give garbled answers to many questions.

2. Mitt Romney is no shrinking violet. Romney was under attack almost constantly, and he gave as good as he got. He did not, however, succeed in rising above it all -- in fact, he lost his cool in a major way, bickering twice with Perry, once with Rick Santorum, and once with Newt Gingrich over his right to his allotted speaking time. Santorum, the reliable attack dog, succeeded in flustering Romney on health care -- the former Massachusetts governor's biggest vulnerability in the GOP primary, yet a subject his rivals have struggled to dent him on. There's a fine line between showing you've got some fight in you and getting snippy, and Romney seemed to cross it.

Perhaps particularly damaging for a candidate whose chief personal liability is the perception he's a political shape-shifter was this explanation for the illegal immigrants found to be working on his lawn: "We went to the company and we said, 'Look, you can't have any illegals working on our property. I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals.'"

And yet, at the end of the night, there was no question who the front-runner was, and that he stands in a tier by himself, with no opponent of equal stature. Romney came well prepared -- this was his 20th presidential debate stretching back to 2007, and all that practice has clearly helped. He effectively demolished Herman Cain's nonsensical contention that state and federal sales taxes are "apples and oranges," saying, "Fine, 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." He brought up energy policy before Perry could take ownership of it, and when Perry picked up the thread, he turned it around, implying the Texan was forgetting about manufacturing. He frequently sought to broaden the frame to the American people who are hurting, et cetera, et cetera. And he didn't let Perry get away with trying to simultaneously claim that illegal immigration is a massive problem the government needs to address -- and a problem he's effectively tackled as the get-tough governor of a border state. If Romney got dragged into the mud, he made sure nobody else walked out clean.

3. Herman Cain can't laugh off everything. The first segment of the debate was devoted to a round-robin bash-fest of Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan, and Cain's glib denials that it would have the effects independent experts contend -- like raising taxes on a lot of people, chiefly those who can least afford it -- finally started to fall flat. After that, Cain abruptly ceased to be a focal point as the debate's center of gravity shifted to Romney.

The last portion of the debate was much worse for Cain as the topic switched to his weakest subject, foreign policy. He got badly tangled up in the question of whether he would negotiate with al-Qaeda for the release of prisoners from Guantanamo, trying to avoid backing down from previously saying that he would while also categorically stating he wouldn't ever negotiate with terrorists. "I would never agree to letting hostages in Guantanamo Bay go," he stumbled at one point. (After the debate, he told reporters he'd misspoken -- obviously.) Michele Bachmann called him "naive."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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