LAS VEGAS -- Despite upstart Herman Cain's explosion in national polling, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry -- and their campaign teams -- still view the Republican presidential primary as a dogfight between themselves.
Romney came under sustained fire from his rivals Tuesday in his seventh GOP primary debate since announcing a presidential run in June. The front-runner took center stage in CNN’s forum here and largely beat back a series of charges from his competitors. But he also grew testy at times, dismissing some attacks and refusing to answer others.
Rick Santorum, who is languishing in the polls, was the initial aggressor, starting with the health care bill the former Massachusetts governor signed into law in 2006. The plan imposed a mandate on state residents to purchase health insurance or pay a fee; it helped pave the way for the national health care reform legislation President Obama led to passage in 2010 -- and conservatives can’t stand it.
Santorum dinged Romney for a lack of credibility on the issue, noting, “Your consultants helped Obama craft ObamaCare. And to say that you're going to repeal it, you just -- you have no track record on that, that we can trust you that you're going to do that.”
The commentary devolved into a volley between the two, and they shouted over each other in search of more time to talk. Perry and Newt Gingrich soon joined the fray, siding against Romney.
A similar scene ensued moments later when the discussion turned to immigration policy. Perry, while defending his own record as the head of a border state, accused Romney of being hypocritical on the issue.
“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,” the Texas governor said. “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.”
Perry was referring to a late-2006 story in the Boston Globe pointing out that a landscaping company Romney hired was using illegal immigrants to work on Romney’s Belmont, Mass., property. The issue resurfaced in 2007 when a second occurrence was discovered.
In response, Romney turned away from Perry, who was next to him on the stage, and erupted into laughter.
“Rick, I don't think I've ever hired an illegal in my life,” he said, and as he went on, Perry challenged him in what became another indecipherable verbal war.
Finally, Romney said, “This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that. And so you're going to get testy.”
Romney has been using such dismissive asides in the debates -- usually aimed at Perry -- and in the “spin room” afterward, Perry’s team took issue with this tactic. “Mitt Romney plays fast and loose with the facts,” declared spokesman Mark Miner. “And whenever he gets pushed on anything, he dodges the issue.”
But bobbing and weaving is part of this exercise -- it was the fifth debate in the last six weeks for the GOP contenders -- and it’s one of the reasons Romney has emerged relatively unscathed from a process that has taken a toll on some of the others, notably Perry. Romney was asked Tuesday to comment on his changing tune about the Occupy Wall Street movement -- he originally panned it before softening his tone -- and he avoided the issue of waffling and instead focused on the stubbornly high unemployment rate and the need to jump-start the American economy.
Romney also did his level best to flip the narrative when Perry noted that Massachusetts was 47th out of the 50 states in job creation under his leadership, saying he got the state’s unemployment rate down to 4.7 percent.
Afterward, Romney’s advisers seemed pleased with their candidate’s performance, and defended his feistiness. Longtime spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said Romney conducted himself as a gentleman under fire. “He never attacks first,” Fehrnstrom said.
Adviser Ron Kaufman added of his candidate’s tone, “I think people liked it. They were getting nervous that he was too relaxed.”
Fehrnstrom and Kaufman also crowed that Perry entered the debate with a strategy to wound Romney but ended up nailing himself, and they pointed to the multiple boos that Perry’s remarks elicited as evidence. Boos are a poor barometer, however, and the Nevada setting favored Romney, who enjoys a strong following in the Silver State.
And Perry’s decision to come out swinging may quell many of the concerns about his middling performances in the last few debates. From the beginning, he sounded more authoritative than he had been in previous debates, starting off with this veiled slam at Romney: “I'm Texas Governor Rick Perry, a proven job-creator and a man who is about economic growth, an authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience.”
Romney’s advisers had little to say afterward about Herman Cain, an indication that despite the former pizza magnate’s unlikely surge in the polls, the candidate they still worry about most is living in the governor’s mansion in Austin. Still, a subtext is emerging for Romney that could create some complications: Cain has begun to emphasize the differences in their private-sector resumes.
“Governor Romney has a very distinguished career, and I would agree with much of what he has said,” Cain said in the debate. “And there's one difference between the two of us in terms of our experience. With all due respect, his business-executive experience has been more Wall Street-oriented; mine has been more Main Street. I have managed small companies. I've actually had to clean the parking lot. I've worked with groups of businesses.”
What may be an issue with both businessmen for the GOP base, however, is that in the last two debates they each have owned up to supporting TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program -- the bank bailout -- when it was introduced. They have since criticized how the funding was administered.
In less than a month, Cain has gone from being the aspirant all the others liked to say good things about to a candidate they couldn’t wait to criticize. A particularly irresistible target Tuesday was Cain’s controversial “9-9-9” plan that offers a flat 9 percent tax on income, sales and corporations nationwide.
The most telling blow was landed by Perry. “You don’t need to have a big analysis to figure this thing out,” he said. “Go to New Hampshire, where they don’t have a sales tax, and you’re fixing to give them one.”
Jon Huntsman also tried to curry favor with Granite State voters, in this case by boycotting the Las Vegas gathering over the Silver State’s decision to move its caucuses up to Jan. 14. While the others jousted on the stage, he hosted a New Hampshire town-hall meeting. (Granite State Republicans say Nevada’s early caucus date threatens their primary’s impact, and Huntsman has sided with New Hampshire, where he is focusing his strategy.)
Michele Bachmann took every opportunity to turn the discussion away from the fights onstage and toward President Obama, but she neither sustained nor delivered any lasting hits. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich made little news.
The next scheduled debate is not for another three weeks; CNBC will host an economic-focused gathering on Nov. 9 in Rochester, Mich. And CNN has announced it will broadcast yet another one on Nov. 15 in Washington, D.C., which will have a foreign policy focus. The cable network also hosts the next debate after that; it will take place Dec. 1 in Arizona in conjunction with the state GOP.
Three debates are tentatively scheduled for December, and another six are slated for January, when the primaries actually start.