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GOP Presidential Contenders Clash in Feistiest Debate of the Year

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry; photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and other GOP presidential contenders sparred often at Tuesday night’s debate. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

Remember all those debates where Mitt Romney successfully stayed above the fray?

Those days are long gone. Welcome to the fray, Mr. Romney.

The Tuesday night bout in Las Vegas among seven Republican presidential hopefuls proved to be a far more contentious affair than any of the previous encounters.

The debate, moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, provided us the opportunity to see several developing dynamics as the battle for the nomination continues to take shape.

  • Romney showed he doesn’t crumble under attack, but his feathers ruffle a bit and, at times, unattractively so.
  • Rick Perry demonstrated that if you prepare and enter a debate with a specific and limited goal and put some heart into it, you can execute more easily and effectively.
  • We learned that Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax overhaul plan doesn’t have the support of any of the Republicans running for president on that stage. That’s not a testament of boldness and simplicity. That speaks to the political weakness of the plan.

Romney came in for sustained attacks by his opponents on topics ranging from his individual-mandate-based health insurance plan as Massachusetts governor to the illegal immigrants employed by a landscaping company hired by Romney in 2006.

Beyond the specific issue attacks, it was clear from the very first moments that Perry, who has struggled in debates past, came to chip away at Romney’s character.

“Good evening. I’m Texas Governor Rick Perry, a proven job-creator and a man who is about economic growth, an authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience,” he said in his opening statement.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Perry both clearly got under Romney’s skin at various points throughout the debate. Romney chided both of them for not letting him speak. Perhaps problematic for Romney, it’s his chiding that may get more play on television than the substance of his retorts.

In one instance, Romney offered some unsolicited advice to Perry.

“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,” Romney said.

Despite the scolding, Perry did himself some good by showing up ready to take on Romney. Perry’s still not a polished debater, but he clearly has fight left him in, which was far from clear before Tuesday night.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who initially challenged Romney’s assertion that the health care individual mandate was Gingrich’s idea before conceding that he did support that policy position espoused by the Heritage Foundation, once again bemoaned the food fight.

“Let me just point out for a second that maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House,” Gingrich said to applause. “And the — the technique you’ve used maximizes going back and forth over and over again,” he added in a direct critique to Cooper.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann appeared to do little in their performances that will help them grow far beyond their current base of support.

You can read the debate transcript in its entirety here.

And we suggest some of these must-reads:

The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Barabak: “Republicans take off gloves in Vegas debate”

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz: “After sharp GOP debate, campaign shifts focus”

The New York Times’ Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg: “A Fierce Clash for Romney and Perry as Republican Candidates Debate”

POLITICO’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith: “Rick Perry vs. Mitt Romney: Now it’s personal”

JOBS JOBS JOBS

With President Obama on the road in Virginia touting elements of his jobs bill and Vice President Joe Biden trekking up to Capitol Hill to promote the package at a rally with Senate Democrats, there’s little mystery as to what the main focus of the White House is Wednesday.

The president will be joined by first lady Michelle Obama at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, where they will deliver remarks at 10:30 a.m. about the importance of hiring veterans. Later, Mr. Obama will speak at Fire Station 9 in North Chesterfield at 2:40 p.m., where he will urge lawmakers to pass his jobs plan piece-by-piece, “beginning with the proposal to provide funding to prevent teacher layoffs and hire police officers and firefighters,” according to the White House.

Vice President Biden will be joined by Senate Democratic leaders, teachers, cops and firefighters at a 2:15 p.m. ET event on Capitol Hill to urge passage of the bill, which supporters claim would keep more than 400,000 workers on the job. The $35 billion price tag would be offset through a half-percent increase in the tax rate on millionaires.

In an interview with Jake Tapper of ABC News Tuesday, the president sought to ramp up the pressure on congressional Republicans to get behind some of the specific pieces of the plan.

“The fact of the matter is, in the absence of some Republican support, they are able to block proposals even if they have gotten the support of the majority of American people. Sixty-three percent of the American people support the elements of my jobs plan, they support the idea that we should have the best infrastructure in the world. They support the idea that we shouldn’t be firing teachers at time when we know education is the most important thing we can do to make sure our kids can compete in this economy,” the president told Tapper. “And yet, even though we’ve gotten a majority of senators in the Senate willing to move forward on this, because of the filibuster, because of the rules that are set up in the Senate, those things are blocked.”

If the remarks Tuesday by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were any indication, even the president’s piecemeal approach might not stand a chance, given how Democrats propose to pay for it.

“The president should drop his obsession with raising taxes. And if he really wants to create jobs, maybe he should consider doing something different,” Sen. McConnell said. “Let’s try something that might actually work.”

So far, there has been little agreement between Republicans and Democrats as to what will work, which leaves a lot of unfinished business as the two sides attempt to figure out what to do about the most pressing issue facing the country.

SETTING EXPECTATIONS

President Obama has already declared himself the “underdog” in the 2012 election, despite being an incumbent who is expected to raise north of $750 million dollars.

He continued his expectation-setting for the upcoming campaign in Tuesday’s interview with Tapper.

“I guarantee it’s going to be a close election because the economy is not where it wants to be and even though I believe all the choices we’ve made have been the right ones, we’re still going through difficult circumstances,” Mr. Obama said.

“That means people who may be sympathetic to my point of view still kind of feel like, yeah, but it still hasn’t gotten done yet. This is going to be a close election and a very important one for the American people,” the president added.

A lot can change in 13 months, but given the current metrics for the president — low approval rating, struggling economy, high unemployment — it’s hard to argue with his prediction of a tight race next year.

CAIN’S SUPER PAC

Supporters of Cain’s presidential bid have launched a Super PAC to boost his campaign, going public with the effort minutes before Tuesday night’s debate.

The group, dubbed Americans for Herman Cain, used its debut email to criticize Romney for “flip-flops on abortion, immigration, gun control” and Perry for his HPV vaccine mandate in Texas and opposition to building a border fence.

“What if we didn’t have to choose between the lesser of two evils for President?” the email asks.

In a corresponding web video, the group also takes aim at 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain for not being a “real conservative” and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for not believing in “traditional values.”

ON THE TRAIL

All events listed in Eastern Time.

  • President Obama wraps up his three-day bus tour and returns to Washington.
  • Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, addresses supporters on the campus of UNLV at 2:30 p.m.
  • Mitt Romney addresses the Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce in South Dakota at 8 p.m.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar.

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