(Steve Marcus / Reuters )
Whew. Can you have a debate in which nobody wins?
The seven Republican presidential candidates on the stage during the CNN debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday slapped, swatted, slashed, jabbed, picked and poked at each other for two hours. As might be expected, most of them emerged bloodier and more ragged than when they walked in.
But then, these things are contests—largely political sporting events. So if a winner must be crowned, make it Rick Perry, who showed some fire in his willingness to go toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney, whose aura of inevitability waxed and waned during the debate. Perry was just about the only candidate who has reason to smile today.
Romney, under attack for most of the night not only from Perry but from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, was at times peevish and other times rattled, particularly on the subject of immigration. At one point, Romney lost his cool and touched Perry on the shoulder as he was interrupted.
And then there was Herman Cain, the businessman who was riding a wave of media attention and surging poll numbers before Tuesday evening. Cain and his (say it with us) "9-9-9" plan were roasted from the get-go. And he didn’t help his cause by bungling answers on other issues, including the Wall Street bailouts and a theoretical prisoner transfer involving Guantanamo inmates.
Here are some of the highlights—and lowlights—from a combative evening on the Strip.
NEIN-NEIN-NEIN: The debate was an interesting exercise in taking a guy apart -- even patronizing him -- while complimenting him lavishly.
They all liked his "chutzpah," as Romney described it, but they all thought Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan is unworkable and "regressive," in the words of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
"Herman Cain deserves a lot of credit," said Gingrich. "He has us talking at least about something that matters. ... There are much more complexities than Herman lets on." (Since Cain has never held elective office and has no honorific, everyone else spent much of the night calling him “Herman.”)
"Herman's well meaning and I love his boldness ... but the reports are out ... 84% of Americans will pay more taxes under his plan," said Santorum. "We're talking about major increases in taxes on people."
Perry perhaps made the strongest case against Cain’s plan, even while repeatedly calling him “brother.”
"Herman," he said, "I love you, brother, but you don't need a big analysis to figure this out. ... Go to New Hampshire. They're not interested in 9-9-9. They're interested in flatter and fairer. " (New Hampshire does not have a sales tax.)
As he did a week earlier at the debate in New Hampshire, Perry pledged he would provide details of his own plan in a matter of days. In other words: not here, not now.
At that time, he said, "I'll bump plans with you, brother."
ROMNEYCARE RESUFACES: For weeks, Romney had appeared to escape concerted attacks on the healthcare plan he helped enact in Massachusetts, one that is similar to the Democratic healthcare overhaul passed last year by Congress.
The check came due Tuesday.
But it was not Perry but Santorum, the often-overlooked former Pennsylvania senator, who then landed one of the biggest blows on Romney to date on the issue.
"You just don't have credibility, Mitt, for repealing Obamacare," Santorum said, arguing that the Obama administration modeled its plan after what Romney championed as governor of Massachusetts. "What you did was exactly what Barack Obama did."
Romney argued that he never intended for his plan to be adopted on a national level -- but his rivals quickly said he had in fact endorsed that in his own autobiography, but deleted it in a new edition.
Romney also said that his plan differed from Obama's because "we don't have a government insurance plan. We rely on private insurers." Obama's own plan calls for setting up insurance exchanges in which individuals can purchase private insurance.
"I'm sorry, Rick, that you find so much to dislike in my plan. But I'll tell you, the people of Massachusetts like it by about a 3-to-1 margin," he said. "And we dealt with the challenge that we had, a lot of people that were expecting government to pay their way."
Other candidates joined the pile-on.
"It's not 'Obamacare.' ... But your plan essentially is one more big-government, bureaucratic, high-cost system," Gingrich said.
‘I CAN’T HAVE ILLEGALS’: Going on offense, Perry unexpectedly revived an old controversy over Romney, while Massachusetts governor, employing a lawncare firm that hired illegal immigrants.
The immigration issue has been a liability for Perry ever since the GOP base discovered he supports in-state tuition credits for the children of illegal immigrants. Perry sought to turn the tables.