LAS VEGAS — While former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain and his “9-9-9” plan were the prime target at the opening of Tuesday night’s CNN Western Republican presidential debate, the night ultimately was focused on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Coming into the debate, conventional wisdom suggested that with his sudden rise into a front-runner position, Cain would be in the hot seat. And it certainly looked like that at the beginning of the debate with each of the six other candidates participating in the debate at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas trashing Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan.
But a series of verbal duals between Romney and other candidates over immigration, health care and Romney’s electability ultimately stole the show.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was first to take on Romney over his Massachusetts health care bill, charging that it was the basis for President Obama’s health care law.
“Governor Romney, you just don’t have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare,” Santorum said. “Your plan was the basis for Obamacare. 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 — that we can trust you that you’re going to do that.”
When finally able to respond, Romney declared, “I was asked about the Massachusetts plan, was it something I’d impose on the nation? And the answer is absolutely not.”
“It was something crafted for a state,” he added. “And I’ve said time and again, Obamacare is bad news. It’s unconstitutional. It costs way too much money, a trillion dollars. And if I’m president of the United States, I will repeal it for the American people.” (RELATED: Candidates attack Cain, his ‘9-9-9’ plan)
When the debate turned to illegal immigration, it was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has faced questions over his own stance on the issue, who took it to Romney.
“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 and the idea that you stand here before us and talk about your strong record on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy,” Perry charged.
After a fiery back and forth where Romney was continually interrupted by Perry, and in which Romney appealed for a chance to respond, Romney finally answered the specific charge.
“I took the action of empowering our state police to enforce immigration laws,” Romney said. “When you were governor you said, ‘I don’t want to build a fence,’ [and] you put in place a magnet … that draws illegals into the state, which is giving $100,000 of tuition credit to illegals.”
Toward the end of the debate, Romney was the focus of one of moderator Anderson Cooper’s questions. Citing a poll which showed that Republicans believe Romney to be the best positioned to defeat Barack Obama, Cooper asked the candidates to respond. After an implicit attack on Perry by Romney, another round of verbal fisticuffs ensued between the two.
“I think the people of America are looking for someone who can beat President Obama and get the country on the right track and I believe they recognize that if we elect someone who spent their life in politics, there not going to be able to post up well against President Obama,” Romney said, presumably referring to Perry.
“If you want to know how someone is going to act in the future, look how they act in the past,” Perry retorted. “So, Mitt, while you were the governor of Massachusetts in that period of time you were 47th in the nation in job creation… You created 40,000 jobs total in your four years. In the last two months we created more jobs in Texas.”
The two continued to level charges against the other’s respective economic records. But while targeted throughout the night, Romney left the stage remarkably unscathed. He was able to give as good as he took and made no significant gaffes, despite being forced to defend his record in heated exchanges throughout the evening. Intrade listed Romney’s chances of winning the nomination as almost unchanged at 65.8 percent by 10:30 p.m. after the debate. Perry’s chances increased 1 percent to 15.5 percent, according to Intrade, while the site suggested Cain’s chances dropped from 9.2 percent to 7.5 percent.
Like past debates, the focus of the night was on domestic issues with foreign policy issues only taking up a small portion of the night’s discussion.
Tuesday’s debate was the eighth of the Republican primary season and featured seven Republican contenders: Romney, Cain, Perry, Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was invited but decided to boycott the debate in protest of Nevada moving its caucuses to Jan. 14, jeopardizing New Hampshire’s traditional status in the primary hierarchy.
The next debate is set to take place November 9 in Michigan and is to be hosted by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party.