(LAS VEGAS) -- At the feistiest debate of the presidential campaign, Herman Cain came under fire, Rick Perry came prepared and Mitt Romney came to defend his status as the candidate to beat in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination.
In the midst of a particularly volatile period in the primary cycle, the candidates threw some of their sharpest elbows yet. They got angry and at one point they even got physical.
It was Perry’s fifth debate as a presidential candidate, and after stumbling in some of his earlier outings and fading into the background at last week’s showdown in New Hampshire, he roared back onto the scene on Tuesday night, unveiling a fresh attack on Romney.
At the CNN-Western Republican Leadership Conference debate in Las Vegas, Perry attempted to turn an issue that has been seen as an area of weakness for the Texas governor -- illegal immigration -- into an instrument of destruction against his rival.
“You lose all of your standing from my perspective because you hired illegals in your home, and you knew about it for a year,” Perry said. “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.”
Romney fiercely denied the accusation, which is based on a five-year-old news report that the former Massachusetts governor had employed two illegal immigrants to do yard work.
“Rick, I don’t think I’ve ever hired an illegal in my life,” Romney shot back, "and so I’m afraid -- I’m looking forward to finding your facts on that.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what the facts are,” Perry began to say, before being interrupted by a fuming Romney, who moments later laid a hand on his opponent’s shoulder.
“I’m speaking, I’m speaking, I’m speaking,” shouted Romney, who later scolded the Texas governor: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”
[Watch the exchange between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry here]
The testy moment reflected deepening tensions between the Romney and Perry campaigns, with both sides contesting the GOP presidential nomination with renewed urgency as the clock ticks down to the nation’s early primaries and caucuses.
But in recent days, Romney and Perry have had to make way for a new contender, businessman Herman Cain, who has taken the race by storm with his so-called 9-9-9 economic plan. That proposal came under withering criticism from rival candidates Tuesday night.
“The reason that my plan -- the reason that our plan 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,” Cain said. “Let’s throw out the 10-million-word mess and put in our plan, which will liberate the American workers and liberate American businesses.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said he admired Cain’s “boldness,” 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.”
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann found reason to take issue with Cain as well.
“One thing I know about Congress, being a member of Congress for five years, is that any time you give the Congress a brand new tax, it doesn’t go away,” she said.
And Perry dismissed it, too.
“Herman, I love you, brother, but let me tell you something, you don’t need 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,” he said. “They’re not interested in 9-9-9.”
Cain accused his detractors of “mixing apples and oranges.”
“Unfortunately, none of my distinguished colleagues who have attacked me up here tonight understand the plan,” said the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, who has recently passed Perry in most national polls has even crept past Romney in a few.
“Will the people in Nevada not have to pay Nevada sales tax and in addition pay the nine-percent tax?” Romney asked Cain, who replied “no, no, no, no” and again accused Romney of mixing up his fruits.
“Fine,” Romney said. “And I’m going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it because I’ve got to pay both taxes, and the people in Nevada don’t want to pay both taxes.”
And while the back-and-forth over the economic effects of Cain’s plan dominated the early part of Tuesday night’s exchange, held in an auditorium just off the Las Vegas Strip, Romney also found himself on the receiving end of attacks over the health care law he supported as governor of Massachusetts.
Santorum accused Romney of passing his own version of “Obamacare.”
“What you did is exactly what Barack Obama did,” Santorum said, “focused on the wrong problem.”
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