LAS VEGAS — It was Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s fifth debate of the presidential primary season and he came to play.
After stumbling in some of his earlier outings and fading into the background at last week’s debate in New Hampshire, he found his way back onto the scene on stage in Nevada last night as he attempted to puncture rival Mitt Romney’s front-runner armor.
Gone was the laconic and vaguely dazed Texas governor. In his place was a feisty candidate eager to engage. But, even as he took the gloves off, Perry didn’t land any knockout punches even as he unveiled a new line of attack on Romney, accusing him of hiring illegal immigrants years ago.
Romney fiercely denied the accusation, telling his opponent: “Rick, I don’t think I’ve ever hired an illegal in my life, and so I’m afraid — I’m looking forward to finding your facts on that.”
The always-steady Romney did get a bit flustered at points by Perry’s more aggressive style — even reaching out to touch Perry at one point.
A number of times, Romney chastised his opponents for not following the “rules” of the debate. That may work well in high school forensics, but in real life no one likes the kid who comes across as the know-it-all. Remember, Romney’s biggest hurdle is not to convince voters he’s the smartest guy in the room, it’s to convince them that he’s real.
In recent weeks, Romney and Perry have had to make way for a new contender — businessman Herman Cain — who has taken the race by storm with his 9-9-9 economic plan. That proposal came under withering criticism from rival candidates last night
“The reason that my plan — the reason that our plan is being attacked so much is because lobbyists, accountants, politicians, they don’t want to throw out the current tax code and put in something that’s simple and fair,” Cain said.
Cain, who normally shows up with a spring in his step and a quick quip at the ready, looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s learning, as Romney knows all too well, that it’s not so fun coming into a debate with a bulls-eye on your back. The relentless assault on his 9-9-9 plan by his opponents and the media has clearly taken its toll.
Still, the night was marked by stark areas of difference between Romney and Perry. And it was Newt Gingrich, who may have had one of the most prescient lines of the night.
“Let me just point out for a second,” Gingrich said, “that maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House.”
On “Good Morning America” today ABC’s Jonathan Karl ran through the highlights of last night’s showdown on the Las Vegas Strip: http://abcn.ws/quVKVE
And watch the debate in 60 seconds: http://goo.gl/6lCH9
DEMOCRATIC COUNTER-PROGRAMMING. The Democratic National Committee is commemorating last night’s debate with a new video: “Did Mitt Forget?” A DNC spokesman writes, “Whether it’s immigration, health care or housing, Mitt Romney will says anything to get elected — even if it means flip-flopping on something he said before or trying to mislead voters about his record. But of course, he’s running for public office, for Pete’s sake!” http://goo.gl/mYhNv
– “Romney largely succeeded in repelling the attacks on substantive grounds, but the sustained, heated criticism exposed the former CEO’s tendency to bristle when he loses control of a situation,” writes the Boston Globe’s Glen Johnson. “And Romney’s visible anger laid bare a side of his personality many in the national audience had not seen during this campaign, running counter to the composed, statesmanlike image he has cultivated throughout his second bid for the White House.” http://goo.gl/MWTI4
–”It was clear from the clash here between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, and the comments of the candidates’ top surrogates afterward, that the race had passed into a new phase, stripped of any remaining niceties,” Politico’s Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin noted. “Romney may well be the GOP standard bearer next year, but Perry and the conservative wing will be damned if it’s going to let him coast to coronation in Tampa.” http://goo.gl/kKzqM
– “The vitriol onstage was the product of the far larger dynamic in the GOP race, at a moment when the first early-voting contest, in Iowa, is less than three months away. The normally orderly process by which Republicans select a presidential contender has this year turned into a frenzied and fickle courtship that has seen opinion polls swinging from one infatuation to the next,” write the Washington Post’s Amy Gardner and Karen Tumulty. http://goo.gl/W6Mpd
EXCLUSIVE: OBAMA: Potential Supporters Sense Recovery ‘Still Hasn’t Gotten Done Yet.’ On the second day of his bus tour through North Carolina, President Obama acknowledged in an exclusive interview with ABC News that the challenges facing his re-election stem in part from the disillusionment of his supporters with his leadership on the economy. “I guarantee it’s going to be a close election because the economy is not where it wants to be and even though I believe all the choices we’ve made have been the right ones, we’re still going through difficult circumstances,” Obama told ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper in the interview from Jamestown, N.C. “That means people who may be sympathetic to my point of view still kind of feel like, yeah, but it still hasn’t gotten done yet,” Obama said. Obama narrowly carried North Carolina four years ago, but now 51 percent of voters disapprove of the president and 44 percent say he has made the economy worse, according to an Elon University poll. In Virginia, 52 percent of voters in a Quinnipiac University poll disapprove of Obama while 51 say he deserves no second term. “This is going to be a close election and a very important one for the American people,” Obama said. “The thing I hope the most is that everyone is going to be paying close attention to the debate that takes place because it could determine not just what happens over the next four years, but what’ll happen over the next 20 or 30 years.” (h/t ABC’s Devin Dwyer) http://goo.gl/yU2lu
President Obama also weighed in on the Occupy Wall Street Protests as well as his GOP opponents. More from Tapper’s exclusive sit-down with the president: http://abcn.ws/oiCtbK
ON TODAY’S “TOP LINE.” ABC’s Rick Klein interviews singer Natalie Cole, and “Top Line” features a “Subway Series” interview with Sen. Johnny Isakson. Watch “Top Line” LIVE at 12:00 p.m. Eastern. http://abcn.ws/toplineliveabc
NOTABLE: HAPPY BIRTHDAY AMY WALTER.
@ davidfrum : The hand-on-shoulder moment was very visual yes, but isn’t real immigration news from debate:
@ GlennThrush : GOP prez candidates left Obama with a huge opportunity on foreclosures-mortgage mods last nite — No solutions, NV GOP chair tells CNN
* Rick Perry speaks at the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas at 9:15 a.m., Herman Cain and Ron Paul speak later today.
* Ron Paul addresses University of Nevada, Las Vegas, supporters, students and community members at a “Youth for Ron Paul” kickoff rally on the university’s campus.
* Mitt Romney holds a campaign event in South Dakota.
The Note Futures Calendar: http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV
* Get The Note delivered to your inbox every day.