GOP debate was slugfest that tested candidates’ mettle

Notes on the back of a Boulevard scorecard after watching Tuesday’s pugnacious Republican presidential debate on CNN:

FIGHT NIGHT: The debate offered more action than the Mayweather-Ortiz title bout with everyone taking turns teeing off on front-runners Mitt Romney and Herman Cain. That’s as it should be. Heat tests mettle.

Those who tuned in late might have thought they were watching an MMA event already in progress. Not Mixed Martial Arts, but Mug Mitt Again.

Romney took a beating and under fire uttered a line that critics of his position on illegal immigration immediately seized. While attempting to fend off a body shot from Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who asked whether Romney knew illegal aliens were mowing his lawn — Romney said he told the maintenance company, "I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals."

To some, it again revealed Romney as a shape-shifter on positions and a fellow who is likely to say anything to get elected.

CAIN’S PRODUCE: Cain was easily the least stiff, most likable candidate on stage, but the former Godfather’s pizza baron proved he’s not ready for political prime time. His "9-9-9" tax reform plan took such a pounding I was tempted to call 911. The reshuffling of federal and state taxes was vilified, and Cain responded that his critics were comparing apples to oranges.

By the time Romney, Rick Santorum and Perry finished slicing and dicing, Cain was left with fruit salad and a look of exasperation.

His 9-9-9 plan has about .009 percent chance of passing Congress, but Cain deserves credit for at least pushing an actual idea into the public forum.

THE BROMANCE: Was anyone else left scratching his head by Perry’s reference to Cain as "brother" during the debate? It seemed a little chummy and condescending to me. You would think he would at least refer to him as "the guy who leads me by a wide margin in the polls despite a huge fundraising disadavantage."

Would Perry be as comfortable calling Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann "sister?" How about "my man" for Ron Paul and "big fella" for Santorum?

THE PROFESSOR: Newt Gingrich, who has no reasonable shot at winning the nomination, reminds me more and more of the Professor on "Gilligan’s Island." He’ll never get the girl or rescue the crew and passengers, but he sure is a know-it-all.

These days he plays the book-smart straight man in the increasingly whacky episodes featuring candidates who appear capable of saying just about anything to gain the favor of the viewers.

At one point, he had the comic audacity to suggest what the presidential campaign really needs is a series of three-hour Lincoln-Douglas-style debates featuring Gringrich and President Barack Obama.

Gingrich chided Tuesday night’s format because it appeared to maximize "bickering." Wrong again, professor.

The format put the Bickersons under an intense light and forwarded the public vetting process. Some would say the "chameleon" in Romney began to expose itself because of that scrutiny. Others would argue Cain’s lack of political polish was also revealed.

THE WINNER: While Romney and Cain remained mostly in character despite taking some gut shots, and Perry appeared to have roused himself from a long sleep, the biggest winner Tuesday night was The Venetian and Las Vegas.

With casino moguls Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn watching from ringside, the coverage provided two hours of lively free advertising for Las Vegas at a time it can use all the help it can get.

And only Bachmann did the unthinkable, opening her evening comments by uttering the tattered cliché that she hoped, "What happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas."

The remark generated plenty of groans from the audience, but it did keep intact Bachmann’s string of debate appearances without offering an original thought.

Have an item for the Bard of the Boulevard? Email comments and contributions to jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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