Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry… (Steve Marcus, Reuters )
Reporting from Las Vegas — The Republican presidential candidates clashed bitterly and personally over healthcare and immigration in a snarling Tuesday night debate that featured some of the most barbed and heated exchanges of the months-long campaign.
The event, staged in a hotel casino on the Las Vegas Strip, broke little new substantive ground as the candidates — facing one another for the sixth time in as many weeks — restated mostly familiar positions.
But there was a heightened degree of animus in the air, which pushed the usually unruffled Mitt Romney into a series of raised-voice, finger-jabbing confrontations, most dramatically with Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry, who surged to the top of polls upon entering the race in August only to fall back after a series of poor debate performances, assumed the role of instigator in the evening's sharpest exchange. Ignoring a question about healthcare, Perry attacked Romney by noting that the former Massachusetts governor once knowingly employed a landscaping service that hired illegal immigrants. The issue surfaced in Romney's 2008 campaign for president.
"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 said to a mixture of boos and applause from the audience in a Venetian hotel ballroom.
Romney denied the assertion, and when Perry rebutted, the two men began interrupting and speaking over each other, to Romney's growing anger and frustration. "This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick and I understand that ... you're going to get testy," Romney said, as Perry glared at him.
The two resumed bickering, then Romney cut Perry off, declaring: "You have a problem with allowing someone to finish. And I suggest if you want to become president of the United States, you've got to let both people speak."
The nasty tone held to the very end. When Perry ridiculed Romney's job creation record as governor, Romney dredged up Perry's support for Democrat Al Gore's 1988 presidential campaign. (Perry at the time was a Democrat.)
"There was a fellow Texan named George Bush running, so if we're looking at the past, I think we know where you were," Romney said. Moreover, he continued, nearly half the jobs created during Perry's tenure as governor went to "illegal aliens."
"That is an absolute falsehood on its face," Perry snapped, saying that compared with his own performance, "you failed as the governor of Massachusetts."
Businessman Herman Cain, who has climbed in recent polls to tie or surpass Romney, also came under assault, with the focus on his signature proposal to scrap the federal tax code and replace it with a 9% income tax, a 9% business tax and a 9% sales tax.
Numerous independent economic analysts have suggested the so-called 9-9-9 plan would raise taxes for millions of Americans and hit hardest at the poor and middle-class.
Cain disputed that idea. "The reason that our plan is being attacked so much is because lobbyists, accountants, politicians, they don't want to throw out the current tax code and put in something that's simple and fair," said Cain, who throughout the night touted his credentials as a Washington outsider.
Perry was among those who pounced, suggesting Cain's plan would simply layer new taxes on top of existing ones. "Go to New Hampshire, where they don't have a sales tax and you're fixing to give them one," Perry said, pointedly referring to the host of the first presidential primary. "They're not interested in 9-9-9."
Romney chimed in by mocking Cain's assertion that others on the stage were mixing state and federal taxes like apples and oranges.
"I'm going to get a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it, because I've got to pay both taxes," Romney said to laughs from the audience.
Romney has consistently remained at or near the top of opinion polls in part because he has come through the series of debates largely unchallenged. But it was immediately clear that the six others on stage Tuesday night would not give him the same pass.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was the first to provoke Romney, saying he had no credibility in vowing to repeal President Obama's healthcare program because Obama modeled his proposal, in part, on Romney's Massachusetts plan.
When Romney offered his standard rebuttal — that what worked for Massachusetts was not necessarily right for the rest of the country — Santorum interrupted, and the two began shouting over each other.
"Why don't you let me speak?" Romney demanded.
"You're allowed to speak," Santorum replied. "You can't change the facts."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came to Romney's defense — somewhat — by suggesting that others were overstating the similarities between the two plans. Then he criticized Romney's plan as "one more big-government, bureaucratic, high-cost system" that requires individuals to purchase insurance.