Sparks fly at fiery US Republican debate


The gloves have come off in the US Republican White House race, with the three front-runners trading angry and sometimes personal verbal blows in a fiery TV debate.
Mitt Romney and Rick Perry nearly shouted at each other during Tuesday’s debate, after the Texas governor, struggling to regain lost ground, accused former Massachusetts governor Romney of employing illegal immigrants.
Herman Cain, the blunt-speaking former head of Godfather’s Pizza whose poll surge this month rejuvenated the lackluster Republican race, meanwhile clashed with virtually all his rivals over his controversial “9-9-9” tax plan.
Perry, who surged into the lead after joining the race in August but has slumped after a couple of weak debate performances, riled Romney by accusing him of allegedly employing illegal immigrants as gardeners.
“The idea that you stand here before us and talk about, you’re strong on illegal immigration, is on its face the height of hypocrisy,” an animated Perry told Romney, standing at an adjacent podium.
Romney, raising his voice as he tried to respond while being repeatedly interrupted by Perry, retorted: “This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that, so you’re going to get testy.”
“You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking …I suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, then you need to let both people speak,” he added, putting his hand on Perry’s shoulder.
The debate, hosted in the Venetian hotel and resort on Las Vegas’s world-famous Strip, had started with almost all the candidates pouring scorn on Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan.
“Herman, I love you, brother, but you don’t need to have a big analysis to figure this thing out,” said Perry. “Go to New Hampshire where they don’t have a sales tax and you’re fixing to give them one.
“They’re not interested in 9-9-9… I don’t think so, Herman. It’s not going to fly.”
But the focus of attacks rapidly turned to Romney, with minor candidate Rick Santorum accusing him of having “no credibility” in saying he wants to repeal Obama’s health care reform, since Romney’s own Massachusetts legislation had served as a blueprint for it.
The two candidates started heatedly talking over each other, again testing CNN presenter Anderson Cooper’s moderating abilities.
One of the GOP candidates didn’t even turn up: Jon Huntsman, a former US ambassador to China, boycotted the the Vegas debate over Nevada’s decision to hold its presidential caucus early, threatening to upstage New Hampshire.
On the eve of the debate, a CNN/ORC poll gave Romney 26 percent, with Cain just one point behind and both of them well ahead of Perry at 13 percent.
At the end of the evening, Romney’s camp said that Perry, desperate to get himself back into the race, had misfired.
“Rick Perry had a strategy coming into this debate, to kill Mitt, and he ended up killing himself,” said a Romney spokesman. “Every time Perry resorted to a negative attack, a personal cheap shot, the audience booed.
“So I think his strategy backfired,” he added.
But analysts said Perry had done enough to stay in the race — and in any case he, like Romney, has a far bigger campaign war-chest than Cain — leaving it a three-way contest.
Cain, while maintaining his front-runner status, acknowledged that he is in everyone’s crosshairs. “The way it feels is that you got this big bull’s-eye on your back, and it keeps getting bigger,” he told CNN.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich struck a chord with the Republican-friendly audience at the end of the debate by warning that attacks on fellow candidates could backfire.
“Let me just point out for a second that maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House,” he said.
The show of Republican disunity was welcomed by the White House and Democrats.
“Tonight we saw yet another debate with no plans put forward to create jobs and help middle class families get ahead,” Democratic National Committee head Debbie Wasserman Schultz said.
“What we did hear, in between the constant bickering and interruptions of one another, were more plans to help millionaires, billionaires and large corporations at the expense of middle-class Americans.”
Within minutes of the debate ending, Obama’s re-election campaign tweeted: “Obamacare,” “fence,” and “repeal” were the top words of tonight’s debate — but #Obama2012 was the real winner.”