The opening round of the Republican presidential nomination contest effectively came to an end Tuesday when the candidates met in Las Vegas for their fifth debate in six weeks. The next one won’t come for about a month, so Tuesday’s often testy debate was a last chance for candidates to plant their flags on the national stage before heading off into a month of campaigning. With a little more than 70 days before the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd, the end is starting to come into sight.
So what happened? The candidates tried to get real. There were moments of snapping at one another and a lot of jumping in by moderator Anderson Cooper. Herman Cain, who was expected to be the main target heading into the night, mostly fell out of the spotlight after a long argument about his now famous 9-9-9 tax plan.
The debate set the stage for the next round of campaigning. If you missed it, here it is shrunk down to a convenient 5-point lesson plan.
1. Hit the panic button!
Everyone not named Mitt Romney needs to get their name back into the conversation fast or they risk falling out of the race. As a result, there was a palpable sense of panic among the second-tier candidates as they ignored moderator Anderson Cooper and shouted attacks over each other at a dizzying pace. Rick Santorum, maybe the only candidate on stage to never have a real “surge” in the polls, exemplified this dynamic: at one point he drew boos from the audience for repeatedly drowning out Mitt Romney’s answer on health care.
2. Mitt Romney finally makes a (potentially big) gaffe
Romney’s been unflappable up until now and he turned in a mostly solid performance on Tuesday. But he also showed for the first time that he can be forced off his game with enough pressure. Under attack from Perry over reports that he used a landscaping service that employed undocumented workers, Romney let slip a phrase that will likely come back to haunt him. “We went to the company and we said, look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property,” Romney said. “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, we can’t have illegals.”
Watch the moment:
Democrats are in love with “for Pete’s sake, we can’t have illegals.” Within minutes of the line, they were blasting it out to reporters with a highlighted transcript. You’ll probably be seeing this again.
3. Rick Perry ate his Wheaties
Gone was the confused and fatigued Perry of debates past, replaced Tuesday with a fired-up version of the Texas governor ready to take on all comers. He joined the dogpile on Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan and then turned his sights on Romney, calling him out over an old scandal involving Romney’s employment of illegal immigrants back in 2008.
It’s not clear how well the feistier Perry goes over with Republicans. Polls have shown his unfavorables have skyrocketed since he stumbled in the last few debates, and the Romney-friendly crowd in Las Vegas booed him more than once.
4. The Cain Mutiny
Cain entered the debate as the national frontrunner. He left as the guy whose tax plan was battered by each and every candidate on stage. For about 10 minutes, candidate after candidate attacked Cain for the fact that his proposal to the tax code with a 9% levy on personal income, sales and corporate income would translate into big tax hikes for many in the middle class. Cain has admitted his plan will raise rates for some, though he’s claimed that scrapping the existing tax code will lead to lower taxes overall. Experts disagree.
Cain’s fellow candidates on stage pounced on the admission and used it again and again to slam 999. Cain’s plan does not emerge from the debate looking as simple as it did going in, and that’s a problem for Cain, who’s made his name on repeating the name of the plan like a mantra.
5. Nevada Hearts Romney
Romney is considered the frontrunner in Nevada, which has a large Mormon population and is key to his primary strategy. If the debate audience is any indication, he’s right on track. He got huge cheers on some of his answers and the audience even booed Perry and Santorum when they brought out the knives on health care and immigration.