LAS VEGAS – The Republican presidential candidates clashed bitterly and personally over health care and immigration in a snarling Tuesday night debate that featured some of the most barbed and heated exchanges of the monthslong campaign.
The event, staged in a hotel casino on the Las Vegas Strip, broke little new substantive ground as the candidates – facing each other 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 most dramatic exchange. Ignoring a question about health care, 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.
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 their bickering, then Romney cut him 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.”
Businessman Herman Cain, who has climbed in recent polls to tie or surpass Romney, also came under assault Tuesday night, with the focus on his signature proposal to scrap the federal tax code and replace it with a 9 percent tax on income, a 9 percent business tax and a 9 percent 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.
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. “They’re not interested in 9-9-9.”
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 Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the first to provoke Romney, saying he had no credibility in vowing to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care 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 one another.
“Why don’t you let me speak?” Romney demanded.
“You’re allowed to speak,” Santorum replied. “You can’t change the facts.”
Other candidates, meanwhile, struggled for airtime. Rep. Michele Bachmann reiterated her support for a “doubled-walled fence” along the length of the U.S.-Mexico border.