LAS VEGAS -- The Republican debate here Tuesday night made one thing very clear: It's Romney versus Perry.
Rick Perry, the Texas governor, has fallen in the polls over the last several weeks because of poor debate performances. Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, has taken his place as the alternative to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
But while Cain still got plenty of attention Tuesday night in Las Vegas -- and a fluid electorate may still thrust him or someone else forward over the long haul -- the hottest sparks by far came from the bracing exchanges between Perry and Romney, as they sparred over immigration and health care.
At one point, the two nearly shouted to try to talk over one another, and Romney actually placed his left hand on Perry’s right shoulder and said, “Are you just going to keep talking, or are you going to let me finish with my -- what I have to say?”
“You have a problem,” an agitated Romney said to Perry a few moments later, “with allowing someone to finish speaking.”
Romney was flustered, but Perry was momentarily cowed in the face of his rival’s aggression. He allowed Romney to win the battle for the mic. That may not have been a loss if it revealed a less flattering side of Romney.
"I think Romney did come across as petulant," said Perry's top spokesman, Ray Sullivan, who dismissed Romney's charge that Perry acted unpresidential.
“I think he was Rick Perry in his approach,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan added that Perry set out to challenge Romney. "This is a big field. There’s been a lot said, a lot left unsaid. It’s important every now and then to draw those contrasts to help educate the voters of this country. They know there’s been a problem with flip flopped positions with Mr. Romney in the past," he said.
And whatever the outcome of that spat, the Texan was confident and spirited throughout the rest of the debate, in a night that essentially announced his reemergence as Romney’s top rival. Perry's campaign has played down the importance of debates, but it was clear Tuesday that Perry had decided he had to step up his game.
“Gov. Perry had a strong night. He was engaged and helped bring this race back to a Perry/Romney battle. That is where this is headed over the next couple of months,” Henry Barbour, a top supporter of Perry’s from Mississippi, told The Huffington Post.
A chief Romney adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, disagreed.
“Rick Perry had a strategy of coming into this debate to kill Mitt, and he ended up killing himself,” Fehrnstrom told reporters in the post-debate spin room. “I say that based on the audience reaction. I think what they saw in Rick Perry was a very desperate candidate, someone who’s trying to revive a candidacy that is sinking beneath the waves.”
At least one rival camp agreed with Romney. "Romney ate his lunch. He just kicked his ass," an adviser to a third candidate said in the spin room.
But Romney absorbed more punches Tuesday than he has at any other point in this campaign, particularly on the issue of his health care overhaul in Massachusetts. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) both did Perry’s dirty work for him, attacking Romney as a big government bureaucrat.
“You just don't have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare,” Santorum said. “Your plan was the basis for Obamacare. Your consultants helped Obama craft Obamacare. And to say that you were going to repeal it, you just -- you have no track record on that that we can trust you that you're going to do that.”
Santorum also chastised Perry for sending a letter to Congress in 2008 that was widely interpreted as urging the passage of the TARP bailout of Wall Street, a detail that could hurt Perry's standing further with conservatives.
Perry took his biggest swipes at Romney over his past hiring of undocumented immigrants as lawn workers at his Belmont, Mass., home. It was perhaps not the most effective attack, but did force Romney to explain himself.
Some will see Perry’s performance as merely clearing a low bar. But it's apparent that the Romney campaign regards Perry as the biggest obstacle to winning the nomination. The Romney camp kicked off the day of the debate with an attack on Perry’s jobs record, and Romney himself went after Perry almost exclusively -- and sometimes without prompting -- during the debate.
The reasons are simple. Perry has badly damaged himself thus far, but he is the only candidate who has broad enough appeal to unite the various strands of anti-Romney sentiment in the GOP and who has the deep financial resources -- $15 million in his war chest at the end of September -- to last through the first month of the primary and to compete in Florida, which goes fifth in the process and is enormously expensive. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is the only other candidate in the primary to raise large amounts of campaign cash -- $8 million last quarter -- but he has not shown the ability to break out of the 10 to 12 percent support range.
“At the end of the day resources really matter,” said Sally Bradshaw, a top Republican operative in Florida who is not affiliated with any of the Republican candidates. “I don’t know that it matters right now where Herman Cain is [in the polls] versus where Mitt Romney is versus where Rick Perry is. What does matter is who has the resources to put behind their messaging.”
The Romney campaign, Bradshaw told HuffPost, “see[s] that somebody like a Rick Perry has the same cash on hand as their campaign and can come out and put money behind a message … and that could present a potential problem.”
“I think they’re wise to respond now and get on the record,” she said of Romney’s attacks on Perry’s jobs record.
Romney’s attack is an attempt to blunt the effectiveness of the Texan’s number one asset: that Texas has created 40 percent of all the new jobs in the country since June 2009. The Romney campaign highlighted the fact that more than 1 million Texans are out of work and that the state’s unemployment rate has risen to its highest point in 20 years. They also tried to link the jobs issue to Perry’s immigration troubles, charging that undocumented immigrants have taken 40 percent of all of Texas’ new jobs since 2007.
Perry called that last charge “absolutely incorrect” during the debate, but even Perry’s defenders acknowledge that immigrants have received more jobs than U.S.-born Texans over the last few years. How many of them were undocumented is harder to tell, and the campaigns continued to spar over the details in the spin room.
If all Romney can do is muddy the waters around Perry's jobs record, count it at least as a partial victory, as it mitigates the advantage that the Texan might have on the campaign trail in trumpeting his success.
Some political observers were skeptical of how effective Romney’s efforts will be.
The tactic is "just a way to stay on offense, but I don't think he can put a dent in his record,” said Dan Bartlett, a former top White House adviser to George W. Bush and a Texan.
Jamie Burnett, who was a top New Hampshire official in Romney’s 2008 campaign but is now unaffiliated, said that “any additional doubt that Romney can raise among those considering Perry makes it that much harder for the Texas governor to repair his campaign and fight for vote share and dollars.”
And in Iowa -- which Perry will need to win to have momentum when the race moves to South Carolina and Florida after the Romney strongholds of New Hampshire and Nevada -- he has been especially hurt by his missteps on immigration.
“I think the issue of immigration completely blindsided the Republican nomination fight, and that issue more than any other has blunted any advantage Perry thought he might have on the jobs front,” said Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
An Iowa Republican in the state legislature who has not endorsed any of the candidates told HuffPost that “Perry’s jobs message isn't resonating” in the state.
“I hear very little love for Perry right now,” the state lawmaker said.
Cain is currently the hot ticket in the Hawkeye State, according to Republican sources there. And Bradshaw also reported from Florida : "I talk to people every day who are very credible Republicans who say to me with a straight face, 'If the election were today I would vote for Herman Cain.'"
Another top Iowa Republican official cautioned that Perry does not have a lot of time to turn the dynamic around in Iowa.
“Perry has effectively four weeks to do that,” the Republican told HuffPost, noting that once Thanksgiving hits, most Iowans tune politics out, setting the stage for big money TV ad wars to begin in December through the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Burnett said there is still time for Perry.
“I wouldn't count Rick Perry out yet. If he can find a way to win Iowa and South Carolina he has a chance to win the nomination,” he said. “Perry victories in Iowa and South Carolina changes everything and will surely set up Florida as a decisive contest.”
Ryan Grim reported from Las Vegas. Jon Ward reported from Washington.