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Republican Debate: GOP Presidential Candidates Face Off In Las Vegas (LIVE UPDATES)

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On Tuesday night, seven candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination are facing off in Sin City in a primary debate.

The following contenders are participating in the Las Vegas event: U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will not take part in the debate despite going head-to-head against the same group of candidates in a primary forum in New Hampshire last week.

Tuesday night's event comes in the wake of polls showing Cain rising toward the top of the primary pack. A new CNN survey shows the former Godfather's Pizza CEO running one point behind Romney in the presidential contest. According to the poll, however, two-thirds of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents remain undecided on the contenders running in the race.

Below, a live blog of the latest developments to unfold in Nevada.

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Wayne Newton, also known as Mr. Las Vegas, gave five stars to Mitt Romney for his performance in Tuesday night's debate. Compared to his own Vegas performances, Newton called the Republican event "pretty entertaining."

WATCH:

-- Sara Kenigsberg reporting from Las Vegas

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Here's a matter that I missed commenting on but wanted to circle back to once the debate was over. What was the biggest gaffe of tonight's debate? Well, it didn't come from one of the candidates. Rather, it came from CNN's Anderson Cooper, in this question to Michele Bachmann:

MR. COOPER: Congresswoman Bachmann, you also said at the last debate that everyone should pay something. Does that mean that you would raise taxes on the 47 percent of Americans who currently don't pay taxes?

Jonathan Bernstein gives a good rebuttal:

There are plenty of fact-checkers around, and I don’t really consider it part of my job here to think about where candidates messed up, especially since a lot of their factually incorrect statements are just playing to their audience, and you sort of have to expect a lot of that. But Anderson Cooper, the CNN moderator, has no excuse: his claim that 47% of American pay no taxes was inexcusable. Just terrible. The correct stat is that 47% of US households don’t pay federal income taxes, which is very different. It’s bad when politicians get basic factual stuff wrong; it’s terrible when CNN does. To me at least, the debate had a clear loser, and it was Anderson Cooper and CNN for that question.

Ezra Klein -- who correctly points out that everyone who is exempt from federal income taxes still pays "payroll tax and state and local taxes and sales taxes and various government user fees," directs us to this study from the Tax Policy Center, which provides some basic, pertinent information in its abstract:

About 46 percent of American households will pay no federal individual income tax in 2011, roughly half of them because of structural features of the income tax that provide basic exemptions for subsistence level income and for dependents. The other half are nontaxable because tax expenditures—special provisions of the tax code that benefit selected taxpayers or activities—wipe out tax liabilities and, in the case of refundable credits, result in net payments from the government. Most important of those tax expenditures are provisions that benefit senior citizens and low-income working families with children.

Given that the impact of Herman Cain's 999 plan on those who currently pay no federal income tax had to have been an essential part of preparing for tonight's debate, this screw-up from Cooper is especially galling.

-- Jason Linkins

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It seems only fitting that tonight's debate, which was more often off the rails than near them, should end with Michele Bachmann shouting, "Anderson! Anderson! Anderson!" after Cooper explained that their campaigns had given the signal for the curtain to come down.

Cooper relented, which allowed enough time for Bachmann to announce that "the cake has been baked and that Barack Obama will be a one-term president." Quickly realizing that the preceding discussion was about what each candidate brought to the table, and that suggesting that a GOP win in 2012 was a fait accompli no matter who was nominated, she circled back around and announced herself to be a "bold color," not a "pastel," and the least like Obama of any of the nominees. Which is probably true.

Gingrich took the remaining time, where he finished off with two pieces of schtick he hadn't worked into his debate answers yet. First, he blamed CNN for fostering "bickering" between the candidates. (Like Fox News, NBC News and other organizations who have hosted debates and had to endure the same criticism, I'm sure that CNN will simply point out that the whole point of a debate is for the candidates to draw contrasts with each other and offer criticism.)

Then Gingrich went on to say that if he was nominated, he would "hold Obama to the Lincoln-Douglas standard of seven, three-hour debates." Gingrich didn't explain how he would do that -- it seems like the Obama reelect team could dodge having to participate in those debates using the same technique by which he avoided John McCain's call for multiple town hall debates -- the technique of "saying, 'No, we're not going to do that.'"

-- Jason Linkins

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WASHINGTON -- The winners of tonight's GOP debate: Herman Cain and President Obama. With the devastating accuracy of a CIA drone, the Republican candidates zeroed in on their own party's chances with exchanges that played right into Democrats' hands on a series of issues, from immigration to taxes.

And while Mitt Romney and Rick Perry behaved like petulant, name-calling schoolboys, Herman Cain ("I actually cleaned the parking lot") handled with dignity a half-hour assault on his 999 plan, with which CNN began the debate.

Attempting to out-do each other in their antagonism to undocumented immigrants, the GOP candidates honed in on the toughest possible sanctions and military measures for 15 minutes before someone thought to mention that the party had respect for legal immigration -- and for the Hispanic community.

They missed chance after chance to discuss anything specific about how they would help create jobs -- the country's number one concern.

They dabbled in talk of cutting aid to Israel -- exactly what Obama needed to help him shore up support among Jewish voters.

And they sparred for half an hour about a tax plan -- Cain's, which would add a national sales tax and, according to Republicans themselves, be a regressive tax that would hit the poor hardest.

All of that is good news to a beleaguered Obama, whose reelection strategy relies on shoring up his base, attracting Hispanic voters and winning back independents who tend to eschew extreme answers.

Meanwhile, Cain outshone the two nominal frontrunners -- Perry and Romney -- by acting the role of statesman and never losing his cool. Now safely ensconced at or near the top of the polls, Cain is growing in confidence and command on the stage, even if the numbers of his tax plan don't add up.

Perry and Romney sniped at each other in a way that did neither of them any good. Newt Gingrich was his usual hectoring, lecturing self, vowing to win the presidency by challenging Obama to 21 hours of debates. Michele Bachmann, desperate to regain some momentum, fairly shouted throughout the debate. Ron Paul was Ron Paul.

In this environment, Rick Santorum sounded mild and reasonable, which gives you an idea of what kind of a night it was -- for Barack Obama and Herman Cain.

-- Howard Fineman

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The GOP audience, which is quickly becoming the most interesting player in the presidential debates, rebuked Rick Perry Tuesday night when the Texas governor got testy with popular CNN host Anderson Cooper.

"Governor Perry, the 14th Amendment allows anybody -- a child of illegal immigrants who is born here is automatically an American citizen," Cooper said. "Should that change?"

"Well, let me address Herman's issue that he just talked about," Perry said. "Actually, I'd rather you answer that question," Cooper told him. "I understand that. You get to ask the questions, I get to answer like I want to," Perry said, prompting boos from the audience. "And Herman talked about --"

"That's actually a response," Cooper corrected. "That's not an answer, but go ahead."

-- Ryan Grim reporting from Las Vegas

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In what felt, vaguely, like a flashback to the presidential debates of 2004, the Republican candidates on Tuesday night all endorsed the idea of cutting foreign aid drastically, though some to larger degrees than others.

Rick Perry, as my colleague Jason Linkins noted, suggested the time had come to cut off America's contributions to the United Nations -- warming the heart of former U.N. Ambassador and noted U.N. critic, John Bolton.

"I think we have to have a serious conversation about defunding the United Nations,' he said. "Why are we funding that organization?"

Mitt Romney attempted to draw larger contrasts, arguing that "foreign aid has several elements." The defense portion he wouldn't touch. The stuff that supported American operations in, say, Pakistan, he'd leave intact, too. But to cover all of the bases, he added: "We are spending more on foreign aid than we ought to be spending."

The most ideologically pure of the bunch, Ron Paul, argued that all aid to foreign nations should simply be eliminated. "It is not authorized in the Constitution," he argued, "that we can take money from you and give it to other parts of the world."

What about Israel? "I don't think aid to Israel actually helps. I think it teaches them not to be independent," Paul answered.

All of which was too easy bait for others to ignore.

"No we should not be cutting foreign aid to Israel," Michele Bachmann replied. "Israel is our greatest ally."

-- Sam Stein

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Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) criticized President Obama's foreign policy, saying, "Now with the president, he put us in Libya. He's now putting us in Africa. We already were stretched too thin, and he put our special operations forces in Africa," she said.

Libya, it should be noted, is in Africa.

Bachmann was referring to Obama's recent announcement that he will be sending 100 U.S. troops to help battle rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army.

-- Amanda Terkel

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"I think we should defund the United Nations," Rick Perry said, calling the entire idea of working through organized, international diplomatic channels "a travesty."

-- Jason Linkins

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Rep. Ron Paul -- who this week announced an ambitious spending cut plan that would eliminate whole departments from the federal government, has also pledged to make substantial slashes in defense spending. Anderson Cooper asked if he could guarantee national security with substantial budget cuts. Paul said, "It would enhance national security."

"I don't want to cut any defense," Paul said, citing garrisons in Korea, Japan and Germany that, to his mind, are costly and "spread ourselves too thinly around the world."

He went on to make his standard warnings against empire building and launching military conflicts in unstable areas around the world, but he's done a better job articulating this premise in past debates, where he's sought to draw a distinction between "defense" and "militarism."

-- Jason Linkins

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Anderson Cooper raised the Mormon question. The candidates answered, but very gingerly.

Cooper asked about Texas Pastor Robert Jeffress' remarks earlier this month attacking Romney's Mormon faith. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both said faith matters and that it affects a politician's judgment, but clearly inferred that attacks on someone's faith were out of bounds.

Cooper then turned to Rick Perry and asked why he hasn't repudiated Jeffress, who was introducing Perry at a meeting when he made the comments.

"I have said I didn’t agree with that individual’s statement," Perry said. "But we also are a country free to express our opinions."

Romney said Perry should have called Jeffress out for saying "we should choose people based upon their religion for public office."

"It was that principle that I wanted you to say, that’s wrong, rather than saying he hit it out of the park," Romney said, referring to Perry's remark upon taking the stage after Jeffress.

Perry responded: "I said I did not agree with Pastor Jeffress’ remarks ... I can’t apologize any more than that."

Romney let it drop: "That's fine," he said.

-- Jon Ward

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Even though Jon Huntsman isn't in tonight's debate, his three oldest daughters have been busy tweeting throughout it, writing at one point, "This is what happens when the adult is no longer in the room" -- referring to their father's absence.

"@nbcsnl writers won't have to work very hard for material after this one. #cnndebate," they wrote later.

Huntsman is boycotting tonight's debate out of deference to New Hampshire. The two states are arguing over the dates of their primaries.

-- Amanda Terkel

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@ howardfineman : "I don't agree with the pastor's remarks," says Perry about Jeffres. Mitt treats as an apology. It wasn't, but no gain for Mitt prolonging.

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Jon Huntsman dismissed tonight's Las Vegas debate as a "game show" during a town hall meeting in Hopkinton, N.H., according to Exeter Patch. Huntsman skipped the debate as a protest to Nevada moving its caucus date to Jan. 10, seven days after the Iowa caucuses, which conflicts with a New Hampshire state law. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardiner has said he may hold the state's primary in December. Huntsman has made New Hampshire his battleground state.

- John Celock

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Rick Santorum attacked Rick Perry just as aggressively as he went after Mitt Romney earlier in the night, accusing him of supporting the TARP bailout of 2008.

Santorum said that Perry and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin -- in their capacities as chairmen of the Republican Governors Association and Democratic Governors Association -- sent a letter to Congress in support of the bailout on the day of the House vote. That was not technically correct. They sent the letter on Oct. 1, 2008, the day the Senate passed legislation that was two days later approved by the House. But it's essentially a distinction without a difference.

Santorum's point was that Perry supported the bailout, a statement that Perry has fought vigorously. But by pressing the issue, Santorum made sure that voters and the press would think about the timing of the letter as a key clue to Perry's intent in sending it.

In the letter, Perry and Manchin wrote: "We strongly urge Congress to leave partisanship at the door and pass an economicrecovery package ... It is time for Washington, D.C. to step up, be responsible and do what's in the best interest of American taxpayers and our economy."

-- Jon Ward

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Finally, a question about foreclosures! Sadly, the question got kicked to Rick Santorum, who immediately sent the discussion off the rails. Rather than address the question head on, he blamed Perry, Romney and others for "supporting the TARP," which he claims "started the ball rolling."

TARP didn't get the ball rolling. TARP, in actuality, was deployed to stop the bleeding on Wall Street that came as a result of the financial collapse. The collapse of course, came about as a result of a massive credit derivate clusterfrack spun out of bad -- often predatory -- loans made by banks who were raking in fees while simultaneously trying to hedge all of the risk through counterparties. That's the machine that nearly destroyed the economy. Since then, TARP kept the banks alive, and homeowners took the hard haircut, and their foreclosure problems have been exacerbated by all manner of fraud and incompetence as the banks have tried to deal with these rotted assets.

Perry ended up fighting with Santorum over his support for TARP. Herman Cain did the same, while adding, "We need to get government out of the way," which was his way of calling for the repeal of Dodd-Frank and other financial regulations, as if the Wall Street meltdown came about because it was over-regulated. (SPOILER ALERT: the opposite is true.)

Romney glancingly criticized the Obama administration, by talking about Cash For Clunkers, and saying that "markets need to work" for the benefit of Nevada homeowners. What didn't come up: In an interview Romney gave to the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Monday, Romney said that the market needed to "hit the bottom" -- in other words, more foreclosures -- to free up housing stock, to invite new investors.

Bachmann made an appeal to families. "When you talk about housing and foreclosures, you're talking about women who are at the end of their rope because they're losing their homes." She added, "President Obama has failed you on this issue."

Bachmann hinted at the failings of the Obama administration, but overall this was a missed opportunity for the field, who would have found a fertile ground for criticizing the president if they'd considered the failings of HAMP.

-- Jason Linkins

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Herman Cain recently criticized the Occupy Wall Street protesters, saying, "Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself."

Tonight, Cain stood by his comments -- to loud cheers from the audience.

"I still stand by my statement," he said.

"They might be frustrated with Wall Street and the bankers, but they're directing their anger at the wrong place," he added. "Wall Street didn't put in failed economic policies. Wall Street didn't spend a trillion dollars that didn't do any good. Wall Street isn't going around the country trying to sell another 0 billion. They ought to be over in front of the White House taking out their frustration. "

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) criticized Cain for blaming the people who have been hurt by the financial crisis through no fault of their own.

"I think Mr. Cain has blamed the victims," he said. "There's a lot of people that are victims of this business cycle. We can't blame the victims. But we also have to point -- I'd go to Washington as well as Wall Street, but I'd go over to the Federal Reserve. They create the financial bubbles."

-- Amanda Terkel

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@ howardfineman : This debate notable for flat-out - and wrong -- denials by Perry on TARP, Newt on mandate, Mitt on hiring illegals.

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A little while ago, The Huffington Post's Laura Bassett reported on a curious omission from Rep. Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign: any type of discernible gender politics. Despite being the only woman in the race, Bachmann rarely talked about it.

"Quite unlike prior presidential and vice presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, Bachmann has consistently downplayed the fact that she is a woman in her campaign," Bassett wrote. "She never mentions any of the barriers that would be broken if she were to become the first female Republican presidential nominee or the first female president. She doesn't identify as a feminist or embrace any particularly feminist or pro-woman policies. She talks about how wives should be "submissive" to their husbands, and on Women's Equality Day, she shared a stage in South Carolina with the state's first woman governor and entirely ignored the fact that it was the 91st anniversary of women's suffrage."

Slightly more than a month later, and in a far worse position in the polls, Bachmann finally played the gender card. Asked about the foreclosure crisis during Tuesday night's CNN debate, she repeatedly bemoaned the impact it was having on women.

"[H]old on," she urged female voters, "it's not too late."

-- Sam Stein

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On Oct. 1, 2008, the day the Senate took up the Wall Street bailout, Rick Perry and his counterpart at the Democratic Governors Association sent a letter to Congress urging action. The letter doesn't use the phrase "Wall Street bailout," but nobody supporting the plan was calling it that. Perry now says the action he wanted involved tax cuts and deregulation, but the Senate wasn't voting on any such thing (and the DGA wouldn't have signed such a letter).

Perry's letter:

As leaders of our respective organizations, we don't always see eye to eye on policy, but we come together todaywith one clear purpose. We strongly urge Congress to leave partisanship at the door and pass an economicrecovery package. We both believe that it’s time to stand together for our country. There is a time for partisanship and there is a time for getting things done. No one likes the hand they've beendealt, and now is not the time to assign blame. It is time for Washington, D.C. to step up, be responsible and dowhat's in the best interest of American taxpayers and our economy.This economic crisis is not just impacting Wall Street; it is also making life harder for everyday Americans.Americans across the country and in every demographic are feeling the pinch. If Congress does not act soon, thesituation will grow appreciably worse. It's time for leadership. Congress needs to act now.

-- Ryan Grim reporting from Las Vegas

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New Hampshire residents commenting on the Exeter Patch liveblog are showing some love for Rick Santorum. During the first segment, they praised the former Pennsylvania senator for taking on Mitt Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts. When Santorum was not answering questions, the group kept asking if he would jump back into the debate.

After Santorum took on Rick Perry over TARP, he received praise for doing so. Former GOP congressional candidate Jennifer Horn tweeted, "Santorum may not get as much time, but he doesn't waste what he does get."

- John Celock

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Attempting to interject a bit of compassion and sanity into a tough portion of the debate on immigration, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) argued that the way to stem undocumented border crossings was through lowering the incentives, not building a fence.

"I don't think the answer is a fence whatsoever," he said.

He should have talked to his son. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) ran for office in 2010 with a not-that-emphasized platform of building an underground electrical fence to monitor and stop undocumented immigration. When it was reported by The Huffington Post, his campaign insisted it was an erroneous addition to his website. But there were multiple videos that subsequently surfaced showing him advocating that very policy on the stump.

-- Sam Stein

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Mitt Romney said that stopping undocumented immigration was "not that hard." All the U.S. needs to do, he said, is build a border fence, staff it with enough agents and "turn off the magnets" -- people who hire undocumented immigrants and support perks like in-state tuition for undocumented students (a law that Rick Perry passed as governor of Texas).

"The bottom line is that we have a federal government that has failed," Perry responded. "There is a clear problem here. And he [Romney] hit the nail on the head a while ago. He said there was a magnet of people that will hire illegals. And you are number one on that list, sir. And people need to understand that. You're one of the problems, Mitt."

Perry's blow perhaps wasn't quite as popular with the audience as he intended it to be. There were audible boos in response to his comment.

"I think we've been down that road," Romney replied. "We've been down that road sufficiently. Sounds like the audience agrees with me."

During the 2008 campaign, it came out that undocumented workers had worked at Romney's home. Romney said he didn't know their citizenship; he blamed the problem on contractors.

-- Amanda Terkel

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Michele Bachmann says that she's got what it takes to secure the border. See, she was the first candidate to "sign a pledge to build a double-walled fence by a date certain." Let's flashback to this past weekend:

Michele Bachmann today became the first major candidate to sign a pledge vowing to construct a fence along the border with Mexico by the end of 2013.

At an event in Perry, Iowa, Bachmann signed the Americans for Securing the Border pledge and lent her support to construction of a “double fence” along the entire southern border of the United States.

“I will secure the border,” Bachmann told a gathering, with the admittedly “tongue-in-cheek” name “Taking it to Perry,” a play on this town’s name and her chief GOP rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

She said the fence will be “job number one” if she were elected. “Every mile, every foot, every inch.”

Why not a triple-walled fence, as long as we're talking about massive government projects that she couldn't afford to undertake, having also vowed to never raise the debt ceiling and to have a zero percent tax rate.

Bachmann also vowed to make English the official language of the United States and identified President Barack Obama's aunt and uncle as the primary undocumented immigration problem the country is facing, in an effort to demonstrate that she's a habitual reader of the Drudge Report.

-- Jason Linkins

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A testy, hard-to-watch exchange between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry drew out some of Romney's less appealing qualities. In polls, Romney routinely suffers when it comes to likability, and the notion that he is "weird" gained traction earlier in the campaign.

The worst moment may have been Romney's forced, extended laugh at Rick Perry, drawing to mind the repeated sighs that damned Al Gore, who came off as a pompous boob in a debate against then-Gov. George W. Bush. Romney desperately needs to avoid the same fate, and he has little room for error.

-- Ryan Grim reporting from Las Vegas

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After failing to engage Romney in various debates, including earlier tonight, Gov. Perry took off the gloves, calling the former Massachusetts governor a hypocrite for hiring a lawn care company that employed undocumented workers.

The issue stems from Mitt Romney's badgering of Perry for approving of in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants in Texas, and was colored a bit further when Romney began talking about cracking down on employees who hire undocumented immigrants while on the stump.

By the time Tuesday night's debate rolled around, Perry was ready to go.

"You stood here in front of the American people and did not tell the truth that you had illegals working on your property," he said. "The newspaper came to you, brought it to your attention. And you still a year later had those individuals working for you."

Throughout the exchange, Perry repeatedly got in Romney's face and interrupted his response. Romney, in turn, put his hand on Perry's shoulder and called him, basically, un-presidential.

"I suggest if you want to become president of the United States you let both people speak," he bemoaned.

Given a bit of air, Romney explained that he had simply hired a lawn company to mow his lawn. That company, in turn, employed undocumented workers. When he found out, he fired the company (but only on the second time).

"I'm running for office for Pete's sake," he recalled saying. "We can't have illegals working for us."

-- Sam Stein

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New Hampshire residents discussing tonight's debate on the Exeter Patch liveblog believe Mitt Romney won the head-to-head exchange he had with Rick Perry over immigration policy as the second segment of the debate kicked off. Conservative activist Amelia Chasse did say that she believes Perry has won "most improved" for his performance in the head-to-head exchanges with Romney.

-- John Celock

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When asked by Anderson Cooper whether there is any part of health care reform that he would keep, Cain replied, "No."

"I think we all agree that Obamacare should be repealed because it is a disaster," he said. "The more we learn about it and the more time goes on, we all see. We're all in agreement with that."

There are several very popular parts of health care reform, however, including allowing young people to stay on their parents' health care plans until they are 26 and banning health insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. Presumably, Cain disagrees with these reforms.

Instead, he touted HR 3400, legislation introduced by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) in 2009. In October 2009, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote, "[T]he plan won't work. In particular, its version of the health insurance exchanges will collapse pretty quickly. There's no individual mandate ensuring that the pool includes both healthy and sick individuals, no insurance market regulations stopping insurers from cherrypicking, and no risk adjustment rebalancing the scales when they do. In other words, this looks much like the reforms that collapsed in Texas, and in California. Price isn't learning from past policy mistakes, and so he means to repeat them."

-- Amanda Terkel

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Mitt Romney came under attack for his health care overhaul in Massachusetts during the last half of the first segment Tuesday night. It was by far the toughest stretch for him in any of the eight debates so far (that number includes tonight's debate).

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum opened the exchange by going after Romney. He was unprovoked, but said that Romney has "no credibility" in claiming that he wants to repeal President Obama's health plan.

Romney started to answer, but then sort of switched direction away from a straight answer and started to talk about what he said in his book about Obama's health law. That was blood in the water for the other candidates, who seized on the change in Romney's book between his hardback version and the paperback version (more on that here).

"You took it out of your book," Rick Perry interjected.

But Santorum didn't want to defer and kept attacking.

"What you did is exactly what Barack Obama did," he told Romney, adding that the law has "blown a hole in the budget" in Massachusetts.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) chimed in at Anderson Cooper's invitation, with a more nuanced criticism. He said Romney's plan "is not Obamacare" but is "top down" instead of "bottom up."

"There’s a lot of big government behind Romneycare, not as much as Obamacare, but a heckuva lot more than your campaign is admitting," Gingrich said.

Romney shot back: "Actually Newt we got the idea of an individual mandate from you."

Gingrich admitted that he has supported the idea in the past, but contested that he was the source for Romney's plan, pointing the finger at The Heritage Foundation.

Romney was dinged up, but was feisty and aggressive in defending himself. And then Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) chimed in and changed the subject to Obama's record on health care. It was something of a life preserver for Romney, and looked to be a favor in return for Romney's softball to her in the last debate during the time when candidates asked questions of each other.

However, the attacks by Santorum, in particular, show that the field has come to view Romney as the most formidable frontrunner in the race.

-- Jon Ward

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@ howardfineman : "You got a problem letting people finish speaking," Mitt says to Rick. That was as close to a throw-down as I've seen in a prez debate.

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@ howardfineman : "You've had a tough couple of debates," Mitt says to Rick.

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