In a boxing match of a GOP presidential debate, the verbal punches flew furiously Tuesday night in Las Vegas between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry as the two candidates got personal on illegal immigration.
The two stood face-to-face on stage and angrily interrupted each other. The Texas governor said Romney had no right to criticize him on the issue because Romney once employed illegal immigrants.
"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," charged Perry, answering an attack from Romney who criticized him for approving in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants in Texas. "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."
Appearing to lose his typical cool, Romney at first denied the charge.
"Rick, I don’t think I’ve ever hired an illegal in my life," Romney said. "… I’m looking forward to finding your facts on that."
Perry broke in, saying, "Well, I’ll tell you what the facts are."
Romney refused to let him further interrupt, although minutes later he acknowledged using a lawn service that had hired illegal workers.
"I’m speaking. I’m speaking. I’m speaking," Romney said as the other five GOP contenders watched the angry faceoff at center stage and members of the audience of 1,500 people began to boo.
The sharp clash came during the second 30-minute round of a two-hour CNN debate that was more animated and full of sharp exchanges than the four previous debates since Perry joined the GOP field in August.
Perry clearly came to Las Vegas on his first campaign visit to Nevada to make a mark after turning in four poor debate performances that allowed Herman Cain to overtake him as the No. 2 threat to Romney.
Cain, who has risen to the top of several national polls with Romney, was the main punching bag at the start of the debate. He took hits for his 9-9-9- plan, which would set personal income, corporate and national sales tax rates at 9 percent each.
"I don’t think so, Herman. It’s not going to fly," Perry said as he and other contenders piled on, saying the plan would end up raising taxes on the poor and middle class while the rich would do better.
Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, dismissed the attacks as a "knee-jerk" reaction from people who hadn’t read his plan, which would replace the complicated tax code
"Our plan will liberate the American workers and liberate American businesses," said Cain, who appeared uncomfortable on defense.
But as the debate went on, Romney became the prime target with Perry and the other candidates taking turns slamming him. The main target: the health care plan he approved in Massachusetts as governor and that President Barack Obama’s administration has said it used as a model for the national mandated program the GOP wants to repeal.
"There’s a lot of big government behind Romneycare," said Newt Gingrich, who was less harsh than other candidates. "Not as much as Obamacare but a heck of a lot more than your campaign is admitting."
Romney struck back, telling Gingrich that he got the idea of an individual health care insurance mandate from him and that he has long said each state must decide its own plan and Obamacare isn’t the answer.
"What you just said is not true," Gingrich said. "You did not get that from me. You got it from the Heritage Foundation."
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also got in a couple of licks at Romney as the entire GOP field seemed to turn more combative.
"You just don’t have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare," Santorum said.
Romney again lost his cool and engaged in a back and forth with Santorum, each interrupting one another. Romney said he has made it clear in every debate he would kill Obama’s plan if elected.
"Obamacare is bad news," Romney said, promising to kill it because he said it isn’t working and is unconstitutional. "It must be repealed."
Tuesday’s debate, held in a coveted swing state chosen to host early caucuses, covered a range of topics, with most of the heated exchanges centered on illegal immigration and health care.
Cain’s economic plan was the only one under attack Tuesday, as the GOP contenders sought to stall his rise in the polls.
Romney remains the Republican to beat in his second run for president, but conservatives have not yet come to his side, polls show.
Republicans have flirted with other conservative contenders, including Cain, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who appeals to Republicans who want limited government and don’t approve of U.S. foreign aid.
Gingrich, the former House speaker from Georgia, has not gained much traction, and neither has Santorum, although both are strong conservatives.
The debate showed clearly that Romney remains the man to beat, Cain is still a strong contender, and Perry may be able to breathe new life into his still struggling campaign. He has got the money to give Romney a run, having outraised him $17 million to $14 million in the past quarter.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Perry supporter who watched the debate with Perry’s wife, Anita, said the campaign was very happy with the Texas governor’s performance, combative style and all.
Sandoval said it’s clear to him that in Nevada especially but also in the rest of the nation, the race would come down to Romney against Perry for the GOP nomination and the right to face Obama in 2012.
"The Perry people were happy with how it came out," Sandoval said in an interview. "I think Gov. Perry did very well tonight, and I think you’ll see him and Gov. Romney continue these types of aggressive debates to show themselves as the top candidates. This also was a proud moment for Nevada and for Las Vegas."
Nevada is getting attention because it will hold the first presidential caucus in the West on Jan. 14 and is a battleground that has correctly picked the president every time but once in the past century.
The state’s caucus will be held after the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary — which could be in January or December — and before the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.
Jon Huntsman, whose campaign is all but dead, boycotted the debate because Nevada Republicans have refused to move their caucus at the request of the New Hampshire secretary of state.
Inside the debate hall, it was clear there was no love lost between Romney and Perry as the two focused most of their heat on one another in what is shaping up to be a two-man race.
Perry and Romney heatedly clashed on the issue of jobs and the economy — the one that probably will decide not only the GOP nominee but also whether Obama keeps his job for another four years.
Massachusetts was 47th in job creation when Romney was governor, Perry pointed out, saying in contrast he had created 1 million jobs in Texas during his more than a decade at the helm of the state.
"As a matter of fact, you’d created 40,000 jobs total in your four years," Perry said. "Last two months, we created more jobs than that in Texas. What we need is someone who will draw a bright contrast between themselves and President Obama. And let me tell you one thing: I will draw that bright contrast."
Given a chance to respond, Romney said that if Perry wants to look at the past track records, voters should know that the Texas governor, once a Democrat, was chairman of Al Gore’s presidential campaign.
"And there was a fellow — there was a fellow Texan named George Bush running" for president, Romney said. "So if we’re looking at the past, I think we know where you were."
More seriously, Romney said he got the unemployment rate down to 4.7 percent while governor, and he charged that 40 percent of the jobs created in Texas under Perry’s watch went to illegal workers.
"That is an absolute falsehood on its face, Mitt," Perry shot back.
The one thing they both agreed on was Yucca Mountain, an issue that can cost candidates elections in Nevada.
Both contenders said they think Nevada should not be forced to accept the nation’s nuclear waste.
Perry framed it as a states rights issue, while Romney said other states should be allowed to bid on the project to reprocess nuclear waste if Nevada didn’t want it.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper moderated the debate but didn’t do much to discourage or interrupt the fighting among candidates.
Selected audience members got to ask questions. The illegal immigration exchange between Romney and Perry happened after a Hispanic man asked how Republicans could appeal to Latinos, who make up 26 percent of Nevada’s population and tend to vote Democratic.
Robert Zavala, the Las Vegas business developer who asked the question, said he was disappointed he didn’t get a good answer.
"What is the message from you guys to our Latino community?" the 42-year-old had asked. While Perry and Romney fought, Santorum said Hispanics are conservative when it comes to family and beliefs.
"Santorom was the only one who tried to answer," said Zavala, who described himself as a proud Republican. "The Latino community wants to hear that we are part of the larger community."
He had introduced his question by noting "not all of us are illegal."
"As a community, we are not being addressed by Republicans," he said. "We are a large community. We pay taxes, and we aren’t going anywhere."
Outside the debate at The Venetian’s Sands Expo and Convention Center, about 100 protesters shouted slogans and saying they wanted to send a message to the Republican candidates.
They chanted "Talk to Nevadans!" and carried signs that read "Job creation now!" and "Stop corporate greed!"
"Basically, everybody’s mad at the Republicans," said Laura Martin, a local activist who showed up because she is upset at Republicans who want to repeal the new federal health care law. "They’re not listening to us."
Review-Journal reporter Lynnette Curtis contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.