The GOP's Most Confrontational Debate Yet

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Republican candidates swarmed Mitt Romney and had some tense moments onstage during a CNN forum at The Venetian in Las Vegas

Romney Perry debate Las Vegas - Chris Carlson AP - banner.jpg

Las Vegas is accustomed to playing host to prize fights, but the the multi-direction fisticuffs on CNN's fit-for-professional-wrestling stage had the audience at Tuesday's Republican presidential debate ooohing and aahing, whether in admiration or dismay it was hard to say.

At any rate, no one can fault any of the candidates for timidity.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum jumped on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's credibility in criticizing President Obama's health care expansion, Romney battled back so aggressively that the two talked over each other, a conversation that dove further into unintelligibility when when Texas Gov. Rick Perry jumped in to Santorum's back. Later, Romney and Perry went at each other after Perry ricocheted a question about Texas's low insurance rate for children into an attack on Romney for hiring illegal immigrants, a reference to Romney's hiring of a lawn care firm that employed illegal immigrants. Romney has said he "gave the company a second chance" after asking it to ensure its employees were legal to work in the United States, and he only severed ties after a newspaper report about a year later reported that illegal immigrants were still working on Romney's property. The two went almost literally nose-to-nose, with Romney at one point touching Perry on the shoulder. "A tough couple of debates for Rick," Romney sniped.

When Perry cut in, Romney retorted, "You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking and I'd suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, you've got to let both people speak." Later, Perry tried to swing the momentum back against Romney, saying, "You're one of the problems, Mitt." Smiling and shaking his head, Romney cited crowd boos as a reason to move on. Likely to the next round.


Religion and politics

If the 2012 campaign had commandments, high on anybody's top 10 would be that Mitt Romney is not going to get tripped up on religion questions. When moderator Anderson Cooper posed a question based on Rick Perry backer pastor Robert Jeffress's charge that Mormonism is a cult, Romney played the peacemaker, saying it was sufficient for Perry to say he doesn't agree with Jeffress.

Perry did not, however, repudiate the pastor, and Romney criticized him for what he called a "troubling" suggestion that a candidate's religious preference should prove determinative rather than the "plurality of faiths" Romney said the Founders intended. Picking a president based on where the person worships, he said, would be an "enormous departure from the principles of our Constitution." Romney's problem, of course, is that many voters in the Republican primary do think religious preference is determinative, which may be why he doesn't want to raise the possibility he might be a victim of religious bigotry -- any more than Barack Obama wanted to raise the possibility of racial bigotry in 2008.


Cain in the crosshairs

Former pizza executive Herman Cain, suddenly at or near the top of national polls, immediately became the focal point of Tuesday night's presidential debate in Las Vegas, but seemed to enjoy his role.

The first question, about taxes, triggered a barrage of criticism of the former pizza executive's signature 9-9-9 plan to replace the current tax code with a nine percent tax on personal income, corporations and sales.

Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney all criticized Cain's plan as unworkable or unfair but Cain came prepared. "It is a jobs plan, it is revenue-neutral, it does not raise taxes on those that are making the least." He said "lobbyists, accountants, politicians" were hoping to block a "simple and fair" plan from replacing the "10 million word mess" that he said the current tax code is.

When Santorum cited a study's conclusion that 84 percent of Americans would pay more under Cain's plan, Cain answered, "That simply is not true." In crisp, clearly prepared answers, Cain repeatedly invited voters to study his campaign's own analysis. While his rivals appeared eager to pile on, they also paid tacit tribute to Cain's sudden popularity. "I love his boldness," said Santorum. Gingrich added that Cain deserves credit for setting the tone for a serious debate.


'Romneycare' fireworks

Here's the fierce of criticism of Romney's health care plan some conservatives have hoped for: Santorum said Romney's previous support in Massachusetts for an individual mandate raises doubts about whether he'd repeal President Obama's health care bill.

"Governor Romney, you don't have credibility when it comes to 'Obamacare,'" Santorum said. "Your plan was the basis for 'Obamacare.' To say you're going to repeal it -- you have no track record on that that we can trust you that you're going to do that."

Romney began to defend himself, but Santorum repeatedly interrupted him. Perry even chipped in as the two men argued, saying the former Massachusetts governor had removed parts of his book about his health-care bill.

"I tell you what? Why don't you let me speak, Rick," said Romney. "You had your chance, why don't you let me speak?"

The ex- Bay State governor had largely avoided intense scrutiny in previous debates, but it seems his rivals are intent on attacking him tonight over what might be his most sensitive issue. Gingrich called Romney's plan a bureaucratic mess, before Romney shot back that he got the idea for an individual mandate from Gingrich.


GOP to world: Fuggedaboutit

Where would Republican presidential candidates cut first? Foreign aid.

The GOP field -- including Romney and Perry -- were almost unanimous in calling for big cuts in the foreign almost unanimously agreed they could cut financial support for other countries.

Perry said the entire United Nations should be on the chopping block. "I think it's time not only to have that entire debate about all of our foreign aid, but in particular the U.N.," he said, drawing cheers from the crowd. "Why are we funding that organization?" Romney argued the country needs to solve its own debt problems before handing out aid to foreign nations.

"It doesn't make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to give it to another country for humanitarian aid," he said. "We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people."

The only exception to their united front: Israel. Paul said he would not spare the Jewish state from the budget axe, arguing that U.S. aid makes Israel dependent. But most of his rivals took a different tack. "Cutting foreign aid," said Bachmann, "is one thing." Israel another.

"Israel is our greatest ally. The biggest problem is the fact that the president -- the biggest problem with this administration in foreign policy is that President Obama is the first president since Israel declared their sovereignty put daylight between the United States and Israel. That heavily contributed to the current hostilities that we see in the Middle East region."


Perry: Don't fence me in

Defending himself on a controversial issue that has dogged his campaign, Perry insisted that building a border fence to stop illegal immigration is a bad idea.

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Jim O'Sullivan & Alex Roarty

Jim O'Sullivan is chief analyst for National Journal Daily. Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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