GOP Fight Night in Vegas: Notes on the Ugliest Debate Yet

Cain takes some lumps, but so does Romney - and Perry finally gets under his skin.

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry at the Republican Presidential debate in Las Vegas. Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Rick Perry has been the Al Gore of the GOP primary debates: You never know which guy is going to show up. After a pair of contests in which he played the part of the retiring Southern gentleman, Perry arrived in Las Vegas with brass knuckles.

True: Perry didn't do himself many favors last night. His aggressiveness careened into dickishness and he was booed repeatedly by the crowd at the Venetian. At one point Perry seemed to lose control of his inner monologue; when CNN's moderator Anderson Cooper insisted that Perry actually address the questions he'd been asked, Perry huffed, "You get to ask the questions, I get to answer like I want to."

But Perry did what the rest of the field hasn't been able to accomplish in these debates. He got under Mitt Romney's skin — accusing him of hiring illegal aliens to trim his hedges. 

Here's the key exchange:


If Romney seems to alpha-dog Perry in the overtalk, Mitt really gets off script a few moments later. He blamed his gardening contractor for the illegal hiring and described how he reprimanded them when he'd found out about it: "So 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 – we can’t have illegals.'" 

For Romney, whose commitment to GOP ideals strikes many in the party's activist base as about an inch-deep, this was a damaging moment of forthrightness. I care about the optics of this issue more than I care about this issue, he seemed to confess. 

But Romney wasn't done. He then went full one-percenter, complaining how hard it is to get good help these days. "And let me tell you, it is hard in this country as an individual homeowner to know if people who are contractors working at your home, if they have hired people that are illegal."

But if Romney got bloodied last night, he was hardly alone. Just ask Herman Cain.

Some of the damage was self inflicted. Cain, fresh off a Wolf Blitzer interview in which he'd said he would trade every prisoner in Gitmo for a single American soldier held by Al Qaeda, insisted incoherently that "I would have a policy that we do not negotiate with terrorists."

Cain's 9-9-9 plan also came under heavy fire, with even his fellow GOP contestants blasting it as a "very, very dangerous" and "regressive" plan where "middle-income people see higher taxes."  

Instead of coasting on the strength and simplicity of his three digits, Cain was dragged into the reeds, forced to debate the interaction of his proposed national sales tax with state sales taxes as well as whether his corporate tax is, in fact, a "value-added tax." Cain finally cried uncle, pleading with voters to "look at our analysis" and "do their own math" — the avoidance of both tasks, if I'm not mistaken, is precisely why voters are so keen to throw out the existing tax code in the first place. 

There was enough shouting and just plain wackiness — Perry calling on the U.S. to drop out of the U.N.; Michele Bachmann proposing to build a "a double-walled fence" along the entire Mexican border; Romney calling on China (with whom he'd eagerly start a trade war) to replace America as the globe's top provider of humanitarian aid; Perry telling Cain, suggestively, "I'll bump plans with you, brother" — that at the end of the night Newt Gingrich started to sound like the reasonable man in the room. "Maximizing bickering," he told his fellow 2012 hopefuls, "is probably not the road to the White House."