Published Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 | 7:10 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011 | 9:01 p.m.
The Republican presidential debates have fallen into a rut, with candidates cycling through rehearsed answers to repetitive questions.
But that all changed Tuesday night as candidates ripped the gloves off and verbally sparred their way through issues, throwing the sorts of punches that in Vegas, are reserved for the Ultimate Fighting Championship ring.
CNN had billed this debate, the ninth in the series leading up to next year’s GOP primaries, as a Western-focused affair.
The candidates tailored relatively few answers to the West. But they certainly embraced a “Wild West” spirit, descending into verbal melees so loud and so heated that moderator Anderson Cooper was often at a loss to get the candidates to retreat to their corners.
The candidate who most often broke them up was also the target of the most free punches: Mitt Romney.
Romney entered the debate at a disadvantage. Though widely presumed to have the “best chance of defeating the president” in CNN polling, he fell to second place behind Herman Cain in polls this past week.
Cain’s signature issue got first billing in the order of questions, as Cooper gave each of the other candidates an opportunity to deride his now-infamous “9-9-9” plan: 9 percent income tax, 9 percent corporate tax, and a 9 percent sales tax.
Their criticisms all came down to one main point: It’s not fair.
“Eighty-four percent more Americans pay more under his plan,” said Rick Santorum, who is polling lowest in the field of seven candidates on stage Tuesday night. “He doesn’t have anything that takes care of the families.”
“Middle-income people see higher taxes on your plan,” said Romney, the highest-polling candidate aside from Cain. “I want to get our burden down on our employers, our people.”
Cain accused the rest of the GOP candidates of ganging up in an “knee-jerk reaction” and “comparing apples and oranges.”
“I invite every family to do your own calculations,” he said.
But after that first round, he’d been summarily knocked out.
Romney, however, withstood several more rounds of pummeling without going down for the count. The first came on health care.
All the candidates have pledged that they would repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law if elected president of the United States.
But Romney took heat for having shepherded a universal health care system through in Massachusetts when he was governor of the state.
“You just don’t have credibility when it comes to repealing Obamacare ... you have no track records on that,” Rick Santorum said to Romney.
“Th(at) is something that was crafted for Massachusetts, it would be wrong for the nation,” Romney retorted before Santorum started to shout him down. They squabbled until others took up the offense, with Romney finishing by saying “I may not be a doctor ... but I sure know how to bring the cost of health care down.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry quickly pivoted from health care to take a swing at Romney on immigration, criticizing him for having hired an illegal immigrant to work on his lawn.
“If someone has a record on immigration that doesn’t stand up to muster, it’s you, not me,” Perry said to Romney.
But immigration has been his weakest suit in past debates: Perry pushed for in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants and has said that building a fence is a bad idea.
The country “can use those predator drones from Creech Air Force Base here in Nevada," Perry said, as well as put boots on the ground, to secure the border.
“The truth is, California and Florida have both had no increase in illegal immigration and yours (in Texas) is up 60 percent in the last 10 years,” Romney said to Perry. “The idea that you can sit here and talk about any of us having an immigration issue is beyond me.”
By bringing up immigration, Perry was clearly trying to prove the adage that the best defense is a good offense — and he tried to keep that going by driving the point that Romney had hired an illegal immigrant. But in doing so, he jumped on Romney’s turn, which started another fight.
"It’s been a tough couple of debates for Rick ... I understand that and you’re going to get testy," Romney said. "You’ve got a problem with allowing other people to speak, and I suggest if you want to become president of the United States you’ve got to let both people speak."
Romney then made an unsolicited pitch to a key Western constituency: Latino voters.
“Every single person here loves legal immigration,” he cut into the discussion of fences to say — a clear pitch to the fastest-growing voter bloc in the West, which has been dominated by Democrats.
Even though Romney didn’t directly address “Latinos” or “Hispanics,” the target audience was clear — and it was the first substantive pitch of the debate to a uniquely Western audience.
Despite a mountainous intro — which also featured the candidates as face cards on a poker table — the Western references were sporadic and limited. Most candidates seemed to forget they were on a Las Vegas stage until they were forced to address local issues, such as dumping nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and addressing foreclosures, about an hour into the debate.
On Yucca, most pandered to the sympathies of a Nevada audience — something most Republicans in Congress have not done.
“What right does 49 states have to punish one state and say, ‘We’re going to put our garbage in your state?’ ” Ron Paul asked.
“Congressman Paul was right ... I think the people of Nevada ought to have the final say,” Romney said. “If Nevada says, 'Look we don’t want it,' let other states make bids.”
“Allow the states to compete with each other,” Perry offered.
Newt Gingrich was the only one to offer a downer answer, saying a central site ought to be chosen “scientifically,” and claiming that “most geologists believe Yucca Mountain is that.”
In fact, candidates gave as much attention to Yucca as they did to foreclosures, widely acknowledged to be the No. 1 issue in Nevada, and a major drag on economic recovery in Las Vegas.
None of the candidates said they would offer a helping hand.
The problem with Washington, Romney said, is that “somehow they know better than markets how to rebalance the economy ... the right course is to let markets work.”
“Let the market do it just like Mitt has talked about,” Cain added.
Only Bachmann made an attempt to address the severity of the foreclosure crisis, but she only offered an emotional prescription, not a substantive one.
“When you talk about housing, when you talk about foreclosure, you’re talking about women who are at the end of their rope because they’re losing their nest for their children and their family,” she said. “This is a real issue, it’s gotta be solved ... I will not fail you on this issue. Hold on, moms out there, it’s not too late.”
But just because the candidates failed to distinguish themselves on the issues that matter to Nevadans doesn’t mean that the Nevada Republicans in attendance didn’t walk away from the debate with a new perspective.
One particularly famous Nevadan, Wayne Newton, intimated that Santorum took clean shots at Romney, but that when they came from Perry, they were dirty.
“I came here very open-minded, and I hoped that there would be some clarification for me and there was,” Newton said. “I thought that Gov. Romney handled himself extremely well. He came under fire, he was strong about his answers, but they were not mean-spirited — which I can’t say the same about some of the others ... I thought that Gov. Perry said some things that were unnecessary.”
So, apparently did the crowd, which booed Perry liberally when he went after Romney’s immigration record.
But Perry’s camp dismissed the criticism.
“I think Gov. Romney’s record and all the candidates' records are fair game,” said Perry communications director Ray Sullivan. “In this case, there were opportunities to draw clear distinctions.”
By the end of the debate, many candidates were complaining about the tone of the event, especially Gingrich, who has been the chief critic of debate sponsors.
“Maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House,” he said in his final comments.
But this is Vegas.
“As a matter of fact,” Newton said. “I thought it would be a great opening act for one of the shows in town.”