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."

Despite Cain's technical claim to front-runner status -- every poll in the last week or so has shown him statistically tying or surpassing Romney -- it's clear his rivals don't believe he has the staying power to make him worth really working to tear down. They're pretty sure he can do that on his own.

4. Everybody's a little punch-drunk at this point. This debate was the most contentious we've seen yet, a melee of shocking nastiness and rancor. Some in the GOP fretted that the ultimate effect would be to damage the party as a whole as the candidates seemed to tear each other apart at the expense of their ultimate goal -- beating President Obama in the general election. Several speculated that Jon Huntsman, who opted out of the debate in a show of solidarity with New Hampshire, might have come out of the night the best of anyone.

These candidates have met for five debates in six weeks. It's probably a good thing that they'll be spending the next three weeks apart. We could all use a break.

5. There's life in the old Newt yet. Gingrich's shtick in these debates has been predictable: go after the moderators and the media and position himself as the uniter in a divisive world. (It helps that few have bothered to attack him.) Nonetheless, it's working for him, and Gingrich seemed to get the most airtime of the candidates not named Romney, Perry or Cain. He hit it out of the park with his answer to a question about how Republicans can appeal to Latino voters: "I think we have to have the same message for every American of every ethnic background that we want to make America work again."

Gingrich may have lost some local support, however, when he came out in favor of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which would store the nation's spent nuclear material less than 100 miles outside Las Vegas. That might not be a deal-breaker with Nevada voters primarily concerned about the economy -- John McCain supported Yucca and so did George W. Bush before him. But it won't help.

6. Ron Paul can't stop being Ron Paul. His increasingly professionalized campaign is working to shoehorn the eccentric Paul into a conventional Republican mold -- running ads in Iowa selling him as the candidate of family values, for example. But Paul continues to show, over and over again, that he cannot be tamed or tempered. He said repealing Obamacare wasn't enough and that Medicare, Medicaid and the prescription drug benefit should also come up for reconsideration. He didn't just affirm he favors yanking aid from Israel, he contended U.S. aid is hurting Israel. He brought up Iran-Contra, defaming the memory of the sainted Ronald Reagan, and he stuck up for the rights of Guantanamo prisoners, saying, "They're all suspects. They're not terrorists. You haven't convicted them."

For the many Paul fans who admire his steadfast convictions, his defense of civil liberties and his staunch consistency, all these statements are cause for celebration. They're also the reason his effort to broaden his appeal to the wider Republican electorate is doomed to fail.

7. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum aren't ready to fade away. Bachmann made a strongly emotional, gender-based appeal: "I'm talking to moms across this country. ... There are women right now all across this country and moms across this country whose husbands, through no fault of their own, are losing their job, and they can't keep that house." It was a startlingly retrograde gender-role prism for someone trying to be the first woman president, but also a sign that Bachmann, who has historically shied away from identity politics, believes she could squeeze some mileage out of playing the gender card. Santorum, for his part, continues to play the exasperated but effective debater, at one point shouting at Romney: "You're out of time! You're out of time!" He often scores points, but rarely comes out of these exchanges looking good.

Bachmann, Santorum and Gingrich have absorbed a lesson from the Cain surge: It can happen to anyone. You just have to stay in the game and wait for the moment to find you.

Image credit: Reuters/Steve Marcus

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

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