Testy Romney Comes Under Fire at Debate

Testy Romney Comes Under Fire at Debate

By Erin McPike - October 19, 2011

LAS VEGAS -- Despite upstart Herman Cain's explosion in national polling, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry -- and their campaign teams -- still view the Republican presidential primary as a dogfight between themselves.

Romney came under sustained fire from his rivals Tuesday in his seventh GOP primary debate since announcing a presidential run in June. The front-runner took center stage in CNN’s forum here and largely beat back a series of charges from his competitors. But he also grew testy at times, dismissing some attacks and refusing to answer others.

Rick Santorum, who is languishing in the polls, was the initial aggressor, starting with the health care bill the former Massachusetts governor signed into law in 2006. The plan imposed a mandate on state residents to purchase health insurance or pay a fee; it helped pave the way for the national health care reform legislation President Obama led to passage in 2010 -- and conservatives can’t stand it.

Santorum dinged Romney for a lack of credibility on the issue, noting, “Your consultants helped Obama craft ObamaCare. And to say that you're 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.”

The commentary devolved into a volley between the two, and they shouted over each other in search of more time to talk. Perry and Newt Gingrich soon joined the fray, siding against Romney.

A similar scene ensued moments later when the discussion turned to immigration policy. Perry, while defending his own record as the head of a border state, accused Romney of being hypocritical on the issue.

“Mitt, you lose all of your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year,” the Texas governor said. “And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you're strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy.”

Perry was referring to a late-2006 story in the Boston Globe pointing out that a landscaping company Romney hired was using illegal immigrants to work on Romney’s Belmont, Mass., property. The issue resurfaced in 2007 when a second occurrence was discovered.

In response, Romney turned away from Perry, who was next to him on the stage, and erupted into laughter.

“Rick, I don't think I've ever hired an illegal in my life,” he said, and as he went on, Perry challenged him in what became another indecipherable verbal war.

Finally, Romney said, “This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that. And so you're going to get testy.”

Romney has been using such dismissive asides in the debates -- usually aimed at Perry -- and in the “spin room” afterward, Perry’s team took issue with this tactic. “Mitt Romney plays fast and loose with the facts,” declared spokesman Mark Miner. “And whenever he gets pushed on anything, he dodges the issue.”

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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