GWEN IFILL: And now to presidential politics and GOP debate, round eight.
It was the most pointed and personal exchange of the year.
RICK SANTORUM, (R) presidential candidate: Governor, governor...
MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: I'll tell you what. Why don't you let me speak? Why don't you let me speak?
RICK SANTORUM: You're allowed -- you're allowed to change -- you're allowed to change your positions.
MITT ROMNEY: Rick, you had your chance. Let me speak.
RICK SANTORUM: You can't change the facts.
MITT ROMNEY: Rick, you had your chance. Let me speak.
GWEN IFILL: The clashes, strident and severe, came early and often last night, as seven Republican contenders squared off in Las Vegas.
The feistiest exchange occurred between the two candidates with perhaps the most at stake, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- the hot button, illegal immigration.
GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas, presidential candidate: 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. 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.
ANDERSON COOPER, moderator: Gov. Romney?
MITT ROMNEY: Rick, I don't think I have ever hired an illegal in my life. And so I'm afraid -- I'm looking forward to finding your facts on that, because that just doesn't...
GOV. RICK PERRY: Well, I will tell you what the facts are.
MITT ROMNEY: Rick, again -- Rick, I'm speaking.
GOV. RICK PERRY: You had the -- your newspaper -- the newspaper -
MITT ROMNEY: I'm speaking. I'm speaking. I'm speaking.
GWEN IFILL: When Romney, in turn, criticized Perry's record on the same topic, the fight broke out again.
MITT ROMNEY: Texas has had 60 percent increase in illegal immigrants in Texas. If there's someone who has a record as governor with regards to illegal immigration that doesn't stand up to muster, it's you, not me.
ANDERSON COOPER: Gov. Perry, you have 30 seconds.
GOV. RICK PERRY: You stood here in front of the American people and did not tell the truth that you had illegals working on your property. And the newspaper came to you and brought it to your attention, and you still, a year later, had those individuals working for you.
MITT ROMNEY: We hired a lawn company to mow our lawn, and they had illegal immigrants that were working there.
And when that was pointed out to us, we let them go. And we went to them and said...
GOV. RICK PERRY: A year later?
MITT ROMNEY: You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking. And I suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, you have got to let both people speak. So, first, let me speak.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
MITT ROMNEY: So we went to the company and we said, look, you can't have any illegals working on our property. I'm running for office, for Pete's sake. I can't have illegals. It turns out that, once again, they hired someone who had falsified their documents, had documents, and, therefore, we fired them.
GWEN IFILL: But Romney wasn't the night's only target. Now riding at the top of several polls, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain was greeted with new scrutiny of his 9-9-9 tax reform plan.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn., presidential candidate: We also have to be concerned about the hidden tax of the value-added tax, because at every step and stage of production, you'd be taxing that item 9 percent on the profit. That's the worry.
RICK SANTORUM: Herman's well-meaning, and I love his boldness, and it's great. But the fact of the matter is, I mean, reports are now out that 84 percent of Americans would pay more taxes under his plan. That's the analysis.
GOV. RICK PERRY: Herman, I love you, brother, but let me tell you something, you don't have to have a big analysis to figure this thing out. Go to New Hampshire, where they don't have a sales tax, and you're fixing to give them one. They're not interested in 9-9-9.
REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas, presidential candidate: The worst part about it, it's regressive. A lot of people aren't paying any taxes, and I like that. I don't think that we should even things up by raising taxes.
So it is a regressive tax. So it's very, very dangerous in that thing. And it will raise more revenues.
GWEN IFILL: Cain called the critique misguided.
HERMAN CAIN, (R) presidential candidate: All of the claims that are made against it, it is a jobs plan, it is revenue-neutral, it does not raise taxes on those that are making the least. All of those are simply not true.
The reason that my plan -- the reason that I have a plan that is being attacked so much is because lobbyists, accountants, politicians, they don't want to throw out the current tax code and put in something that's simple and fair. They want to continue to be able to manipulate the American people with a 10-million-word mess.
Let's throw out the 10-million-word mess and put in our plan, which will liberate the American workers and liberate American businesses.
GWEN IFILL: But Romney pressed Cain for more.
MITT ROMNEY: Will the people of Nevada not have to pay Nevada sales tax and in addition pay the 9 percent tax?
HERMAN CAIN: Gov. Romney, you're doing the same thing that they're doing. You're mixing apples and oranges.
MITT ROMNEY: I'm...
HERMAN CAIN: No, no, no, no. You're going to pay the state sales tax, no matter what.
MITT ROMNEY: Right.
HERMAN CAIN: Whether you throw out the existing code and you put in our plan, you're still going to pay that. That's apples and oranges.
MITT ROMNEY: Fine. And I'm going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it because I'm going to pay both taxes, and the people in Nevada don't want to pay both taxes.
GWEN IFILL: Candidates like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were left to force their way into the raucous debate.
NEWT GINGRICH, (R) presidential candidate: Let me -- let me just point out for a second that maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
NEWT GINGRICH: And the -- the technique you've used maximizes going back and forth over and over again.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: And what I want to say is this.
GWEN IFILL: And Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann went out of her way to remind viewers she was the only woman on the stage.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: When you talk about housing, when you talk about foreclosures, you're talking about women who are at the end of their rope, because they're losing their nest for their children and for their family.
I'm a mom. I talk to these moms. I just want to say one thing to moms all across America tonight. This is a real issue. It's got to be solved.
GWEN IFILL: After five debates in six weeks, the Republican candidates now get something of a break. They don't meet again until next month.
For more, we are joined by NewsHour political editor David Chalian and Glenn Kessler, author of the Fact Checker column for The Washington Post. So, we will get down to the bottom of some of this.
But, first, David, it seems that we have been through a lot of debates, and there are a lot more -- at least a dozen more announced to go and that the stage for the primary campaign has shifted from plant-gates and living rooms to these debate stages.
DAVID CHALIAN: It is true. I will be shocked if we see a dozen more debates.
DAVID CHALIAN: But it is true, Gwen, that we have not seen the traditional hallmarks of campaigning, or not nearly as much as we normally have in previous cycles by this point.
I was just looking -- for instance, four years ago, Mitt Romney in the third quarter of the year before the election had spent $21 million already. He was up on the air with television ads. He had lots of staff organizing in the early states. This last quarter, four years later, he only spent $12 million, nearly half as much money that he spent.
These guys are husbanding their resources right now. They are preparing for a potentially long nomination fight, a lesson that they saw -- learned with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's fight in 2008. And so they're relying on these debates more and more to get their message out, to get a lot of voters keyed into their message at one moment in time.
And I think what you will see now going forward is that a little bit more of that traditional campaign will start to take place, because we're getting so close to the beginning of the voting.
GWEN IFILL: But it's cheaper to debate than to go up on the air.
DAVID CHALIAN: Precisely. It's cheaper to debate.
GWEN IFILL: The longer they're on this stage, the more they will begin to, as we saw, kind of go after each other about specific issue.
So, let me ask you the truth of some of them, especially this immigration issue, was a big deal last night. Obviously, Rick Perry came prepared to raise the question about Mitt Romney's hiring of illegal immigrants on his property at his home in Massachusetts. What's true, Glenn?
GLENN KESSLER, The Washington Post: Well, this was an issue that was raised in the last presidential campaign, particularly by Rudy Giuliani, the New York mayor.
And it is correct that Mitt Romney had hired a lawn company that had illegal aliens working on it, and The Boston Globe exposed it. Now, whether Romney knowingly hired illegal aliens, I don't think you can make that case. I mean, he found out about it, he complained to the company, and then, as the story goes a year later, The Boston Globe discovered yet again that they had illegal aliens, and so then he fired the company.
GWEN IFILL: So, technically, a company he had hired did employ illegal aliens, but he personally didn't know of it; that's his defense?
GLENN KESSLER: Right. And that's as much as we know about the story.
GWEN IFILL: OK.
So the other attack, which is Romney pushing back at Perry -- and I want to get this right -- he said that Texas had a 60 percent increase in illegal immigrants while Perry was governor, or at least in the last 10 years, and that 40 percent of the new jobs that have been created in Texas that Perry likes to boast about went to -- or were created for illegal immigrants.
What's true about that?
GLENN KESSLER: Well, there are two statistics from two different sources. The first one comes from the Department of Homeland Security, and that does show that, from year 2000 to 2010, there was that increase in illegal aliens in Texas.
And the comparison that Romney was trying to make was that you didn't have the same increase in California and in Florida. That's official government data. It seems to be -- it's true that -- can you blame Romney for that? That's a bit of a...
GWEN IFILL: You mean Perry.
GLENN KESSLER: I mean, can you blame Perry for that? That's a stretch.
The other statistic comes from a report by a pretty conservative interest group. And there, you know, Romney was cherry-picking data from the report, there's a range there of 27 percent to 40 percent. And then and the way they get that is they kind of pick the number out of a hat. So that, you have to be a little more wary of.
GWEN IFILL: Why is immigration such a big issue for them? Why are they choosing this to stake their claims on?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, because it's such a big issue for the voters they're courting.
It is one of those issues that is a hot-button issue inside that Republican nominating electorate. It believes inside -- I mean, lots of Americans are concerned about illegal immigration, of course, but particularly for this group of voters, it lives very much inside their echo chamber, conservative talk radio, conservative television. It's a very hot topic there.
And so as you're trying to woo the folks that actually do show up to Iowa caucuses, to that do show up to the South Carolina primary, this is an issue that they talk about and care about. And the candidates get asked about it at every single town hall.
So what you're seeing is these two heavyweight contenders trying to box each other out, because they both have some weaknesses on the issue, and so they're trying to each look like they're the stronger one on it.
GWEN IFILL: Nine-nine-nine, the Herman Cain economic tax reform plan which last night came under attack from almost everyone else on the stage, what is true about it? Who's going to actually pay more taxes, who's going to pay less?
GLENN KESSLER: Well, you also saw in the clip you ran there Rick Santorum throw out a statistic. And give him credit for being up on the news, because literally just two or three hours before the debate, the very respected nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, which is jointly run by the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, did the first comprehensive look at who wins and who loses.
And what it showed is that the bottom 84 percent of the taxpayers, individuals, would pay more in taxes under 9-9-9, and the upper 16 percent, particularly the very wealthy, would have a windfall, a huge windfall.
GWEN IFILL: And Cain had been saying actually people wouldn't pay more.
GLENN KESSLER: He said people wouldn't pay more. Particularly, he said in the debate, people who currently earn the least wouldn't pay more.
But, actually, what the Tax Policy Center showed was that it would -- it would raise the same amount of revenue. That's correct. That's an assertion Cain has made, and that's what they found. It would raise essentially the same amount of revenue, but it would be skewed dramatically as a big windfall for the rich, and for someone who currently pays little or no taxes, you would be hit with a big tax increase.
GWEN IFILL: Now, this is something which obviously you could say that Cain used this to catapult to the top of the race. The simplicity of it is very appealing to people. Is it still building or is it losing steam?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, we're going to wait to see how polls shake out now that analyses like this one are getting out there and being exposed in debates.
But, Gwen, you hit on it right there in what you were saying, which is that the way he presented it helped him catapult to the front of the polls. I don't know that the policy itself -- people definitely are hungry for a -- an overhaul of the tax code. That's a very popular position.
The simple way he presented it with his manner, very easy manner in presenting it, is no doubt what helped propel him to the front of the polls. But now that it gets extra scrutiny, as well as his foreign policy answers yesterday will get scrutiny, I think that you're going to start to see Herman Cain perhaps have to struggle to remain in that position, unless he can get more many validators on board that these are actually policies worth consideration.
GWEN IFILL: There are so many things we could take apart from last night, but we don't have a lot of time left.
I want to ask you, Glenn, as doing your job, fact-checking what these candidates say, do all these debates make it easier to keep -- to hold them accountable for their claims, or this something that we're now going to see, as they debate less, go back to television ads, whatever people see in living rooms?
GLENN KESSLER: Well, I would like to think that the type of things that -- the column I write and the other fact-checking organizations do make a difference, and you do see that if a candidate says something that is terribly false -- the worst award we give someone is Four Pinocchios -- that if they get Four Pinocchios, they tend to change their language or they might drop that line.
And so I feel like we're taking them -- keeping them -- holding them to account.
GWEN IFILL: And, David, what happens in the next -- we have three weeks without a debate, few, and then they start again. What happens? How does the campaign change?
DAVID CHALIAN: We are going to see a lot more retail campaigning. We're going to see candidates spend a lot more time in Iowa and New Hampshire specifically.
GWEN IFILL: Like Jon Huntsman, who wasn't there last night.
DAVID CHALIAN: Exactly. Jon Huntsman knows that his whole candidacy is based in winning New Hampshire. And so he opted out of this debate.
And, so as the calendar takes shape, you are going to start seeing real grassroots, on-the-ground organizing, who is my hard committed supporter who is going to turn out on election night, that kind of thing. And we are going to see television ads. It's going to be both positive for people who are not that well-known. The candidates really need to introduce themselves into these people's living rooms.
But, trust me, before too long, Gwen, probably before the next debate, we are going to see some negative television ads, too, to draw contrasts.
GWEN IFILL: And Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post will be there to tell us about it.
Thank you, too, David.
DAVID CHALIAN: No doubt.