Image: Tempers Flare as GOP Candidates Debate in Vegas
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry spar during a heated moment during the GOP debate Tuesday night. (AP Photo)

Tempers Flare as GOP Candidates Debate in Vegas

Tuesday, 18 Oct 2011 09:51 PM

By David A. Patten

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LAS VEGAS — The GOP debate in Las Vegas turned into the verbal equivalent of a bare-knuckled brawl Tuesday, as candidates jettisoned the 11th commandment against attacking a fellow Republican.

“They brought boxing back to Las Vegas,” former presidential adviser David Gergen sourly remarked on CNN following the heated debate among the seven candidates who participated.

Several times, candidates drowned each other out as they shouted at and over each other, and CNN host Anderson Cooper even seemed a bit flustered in trying to maintain order as they vied for a chance to speak.

Some of the exchanges were so hostile that, toward the end of the debate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had fired his own salvos at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s healthcare reforms, remarked: “Maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House.”

Editor's Note: Who’s your GOP pick for 2012? Vote Here Now.

The CNN-Western GOP debate was by far the most contentious of the eight GOP face-offs so far. At one point, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who most pundits agreed had a much-improved debate performance, alleged that Romney’s criticisms of Texas immigration policies was “the height of hypocrisy.”

When Romney tried to respond, Perry interrupted. For nearly a minute, the two men talked over each other, trying to get a word in edgewise. Romney put his hand on Perry’s shoulder, and later suggested that, if Perry wanted to be president, he would have to learn to give others an opportunity to speak.

After the debate, Fox news commentator Doug Schoen credited Perry with being “more energized” than in earlier debates.

“But he couldn’t shake Romney,” Schoen told Newsmax. “Romney was energized and persuasive on healthcare and immigration.”

Perry introduced a new issue Tuesday, stating that Romney once employed undocumented workers to mow his lawn, a story that the Boston Globe first reported in 2007. Romney replied that, as soon as he found out the workers were illegals, he stopped employing them.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum traded blows with Romney as well, testily demanding that Romney stop speaking at one point. He said Romney had exceeded his allotted time to answer the question. Romney replied that Santorum had interrupted his response.

Gingrich also leapt into the fray. He said there was “a lot of big government” in Romney’s reforms. Romney shot back that he got the idea for his healthcare reforms in Massachusetts from earlier proposals put forth by Gingrich and the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Santorum used the debate to make a strong bid for social conservative issues.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann made a tough case for securing the southern border and identified with women whose families have been impacted by the mortgage-default crisis.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul urged that various government departments be shuttered as extra-constitutional and ineffective, and he urged that U.S. troops be brought home immediately from Afghanistan for fear it could bankrupt the country.

When the topic of job creation arose, Perry turned to Romney directly and stated “you failed” as governor of Massachusetts to create jobs. When Romney charged that half of the jobs created in Texas under Perry’s stewardship went to illegals, Perry replied Romney’s remark was “absolutely not true.”

NBC’s Chuck Todd tweeted: “Fair to say that Perry and Romney won’t be exchanging Xmas cards when crossing paths in Iowa this year.” Images posted to websites during the debate showed Perry glaring at Romney.

The warm-up for the verbal fireworks was the early, pervasive criticism from all quarters of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 economic plan. Cain said his rivals obviously had failed to read his plan, and repeatedly urged voters to ignore self-styled experts, who claim voters’ taxes would go up under his plan. Cain said voters should do the math themselves.

Fox’s Schoen observed that the field ganged up on Cain, who maintained his poise for the most part and answered critics with aplomb.

“He was on his heels and less compelling than he has been,” Schoen said of Cain. “His contrast with Romney was strong. Cain was effective, but less effective than he had been. Romney did the best overall, I think, and closed strong.”

After the debate, Cain tried to distance himself from the verbal brickbats, saying he believed they had “turned voters off.”

Gergen agreed. “These fisticuffs are bad news for this party,” he said in post-debate analysis on CNN. “When you’ve got the front-runner of your party called a liar by three other candidates on stage, there’s a problem for the party and a problem for the front-runner.”

However, political guru Larry J. Sabato put the fireworks in context in comments to Newsmax. Plenty of time remains to heal the wounds and unite the party behind the eventual nominee, said Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“We're getting closer every day to the first election, whether it is in December or January,” Sabato told Newsmax. “As election day approaches, the knives come out. It's natural in politics. All the candidates who can afford TV got some good sound bites to use out of the debate. Emotions are heating up.

“But after a nominee is selected, they'll cool off, in all probability,” he said.

Editor's Note: Who’s your GOP pick for 2012? Vote Here Now.

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