Friday, October 21, 2011

New York Times Report on Las Vegas GOP Presidential Debate


A Fierce Clash for Romney and Perry as Republican Candidates Debate
[Download title: “Republican Presidential Candidates Debate in Las Vegas”]

By Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny

LAS VEGAS — Mitt Romney came under intensive attack from his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination at a debate here Tuesday night, with a newly assertive Rick Perry leading a sometimes personal barrage against him on conservative consistency, health care policy and even the immigration status of yard workers at his home.

It was the most acrimonious debate so far this year. Marked by raised voices, accusations of lying and acerbic and personal asides, it signaled the start of a tough new phase of the primary campaign a little more than two months before the first votes are cast.

Mr. Romney responded aggressively to the attacks and sometimes testily. Once, after Mr. Perry spoke over him, he turned to the debate moderator, Anderson Cooper of CNN, to plead, “Anderson?”

President Obama came in for some criticism, but it was almost entirely overshadowed as the seven Republicans on stage spent most of their time challenging one another. Most of the candidates faced questions on some of their biggest vulnerabilities, including Herman Cain, who spent the debate’s opening moments defending his 9-9-9 tax plan against nearly unanimous criticism from his fellow candidates.

But more than any other debate, this one was about Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor. Previously, he had managed to parry attacks relatively easily. But he had yet to face a barrage like the one he walked into on Tuesday.

It came at a time when the Romney campaign was seeking to present an air of inevitability that he will be the nominee, while his rivals were seeking to exploit the sense that his support is soft and that Republican primary voters continue to seek an alternative.

The most striking difference from the last several debates was the performance of Mr. Perry, the governor of Texas, whose candidacy has floundered after a series of unsteady debate appearances. He displayed a much more combative style, if at times appearing too heated and occasionally drawing jeers from some in the Republican audience.

Striding onto the stage with an air of confidence, Mr. Perry seemed to relish challenging Mr. Romney from his opening statement. He called himself “an authentic conservative — not a conservative of convenience,” a swipe at Mr. Romney, who has been criticized by some conservatives for changing positions on issues like abortion.

It was the fifth time since Labor Day that the Republican candidates appeared together on stage. The only one of the leading candidates not to participate was former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, who opted out in solidarity with New Hampshire Republicans who are angry that Nevada moved its caucuses up in the voting schedule, to Jan. 14.

There was plenty of acrimony to go around. Representative Ron Paul of Texas attacked Mr. Cain, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota joined in, and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — seeking a chance to be a conservative alternative to Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry — mixed it up with all of them.

In the debate’s final seconds, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, said “maximizing bickering” was probably not the best way to win the White House.

But bicker they did, and sometimes more. In one heated moment, Mr. Romney turned to Mr. Perry, who was standing beside him, and put his hand on Mr. Perry’s arm as they spoke across one another.

Mr. Perry did not hesitate to make it personal, accusing Mr. Romney of having hired illegal immigrants to work on the lawn of his Massachusetts home.

“Mitt, you lose all of your standing from my perspective because you hired illegals in your home,” Mr. Perry said. “And you knew for — about it for a year.”

He went on, “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.”

Mr. Romney at first sought to deflect Mr. Perry’s attack by giving a stage laugh and saying: “Rick, I don’t think that I’ve ever hired an illegal in my life. And so I’m — I’m looking forward to finding your facts on that.” Mr. Perry snapped back, “It’s time for you to tell the truth.”

As the two continued to speak over each other and Mr. Perry kept pressing his attack, Mr. Romney turned to his opponent and said sharply, “This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that, and so you’re going to get — you’re going to get testy.”

Mr. Perry’s eyes narrowed and he licked his lips, before yielding the floor to Mr. Romney.

The exchange drew from a Boston Globe report in 2006 that found that illegal immigrants were among the members of a crew hired by a company working on Mr. Romney’s lawn. A year later, the newspaper found that the yard workers still included illegal immigrants. At the debate, Mr. Romney said the company had hired the workers and that he had eventually stopped using it because of the lapses.

Mr. Romney said he would seek to push an “e-verify” program to check the status of workers if he became president, tartly noting that Mr. Perry had opposed such a plan. As the subject continued to dominate the discussion, Mr. Romney said Republicans should be welcoming of legal immigrants, a message likely to resonate in Nevada, whose population is 27 percent Hispanic, according to census data.

As Mr. Romney’s agitation grew, he admonished his rival. “I suggest that if you want to become president of the United States,” he said, “you have got to let both people speak.”

It was Mr. Santorum who started the assault on Mr. Romney, turning the subject to Mr. Romney’s health care plan. “Governor Romney,” Mr. Santorum said, “you don’t have credibility when it comes to Obamacare.” The Massachusetts plan shares several similarities with the new national health care overhaul, including mandates that people buy insurance.

“Your plan was the basis for Obamacare,” Mr. Santorum told Mr. Romney. “To say you’re going to repeal it — you have no track record on that that we can trust you that you’re going to do that.”

When Mr. Romney began to answer by repeating his contention that he never said he had recommended the Massachusetts plan for the entire country, Mr. Santorum showed his disagreement.

“You’re, you’re shaking, you’re shaking your head,” Mr. Romney said.

“Governor, no, that’s not what you said,” Mr. Santorum replied as the two talked over each other and Mr. Romney finally said in exasperation: “I’ll tell you what? Why don’t you let me speak?”

The debate also provided the first opportunity for the candidates to engage one another directly on the controversy over religion that flared two weeks ago when a Texas pastor and supporter of Mr. Perry suggested that Mr. Romney’s religion — he is Mormon — is a cult. Mr. Perry was asked if he would repudiate the remarks.

“I didn’t agree with it, Mitt, and I said so,” Mr. Perry said.

Mr. Romney said he was not troubled by the attacks on his faith. “I’ve heard worse,” he said. But he said he was most troubled by the suggestion that people should be chosen for office based on their religious faith.

“The founders of our country went to great lengths, and even put it in our Constitution, that we would not choose people for public office based on their religion,” he said, turning to Mr. Perry. “It was that principle that I wanted you, governor, to say is wrong.”

The nearly two-hour debate offered a rolling and combative night of exchanges, which highlighted the diverging views among Republicans over the Wall Street bailout, military spending and aid to Israel.

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