Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, slugged it out with Texas Governor Rick Perry and overshadowed Herman Cain, his two main challengers for the nomination to take on President Barack Obama in 2012.
Seeking to convince skeptical conservatives to get behind him, Romney fought off attacks from Perry, who brought up an old charge that he hired illegal immigrants to cut his lawn.
“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,” said Perry, directly facing his opponent standing next to him.
“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,” he added.
During a testy exchange, Romney hit back.
“Texashas had a 60 percent increase in illegal immigrants inTexas. If there’s someone who has a record as governor with regards to illegal immigration that doesn’t stand up to muster, it’s you, not me,” he said.
“Rick, I don’t think that I’ve ever hired an illegal in my life. And so I’m — I’m looking forward to finding your facts on that.” Mr. Perry snapped back, “It’s time for you to tell the truth.”
The most striking difference from the last several debates was the performance of Mr. Perry, the governor ofTexas, whose candidacy has floundered after a series of unsteady debate appearances. He displayed a much more combative style, if at times appearing too heated and occasionally drawing jeers from some in the Republican audience.
Mr. Romney had to respond to several attacks from other candidates. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) both did Perry’s dirty work for him, attacking Romney as a big government bureaucrat.
“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 were 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.”
Santorum also chastised Perry for sending a letter to Congress in 2008 that was widely interpreted as urging the passage of the TARP bailout of Wall Street, a detail that could hurt Perry’s standing further with conservatives.
Texaspastor and supporter of Mr. Perry suggested that Mr. Romney’s religion — he is Mormon — is a cult. Mr. Perry was asked if he would repudiate the remarks.
“I didn’t agree with it, Mitt, and I said so,” Mr. Perry said. Mr. Romney said he was not troubled by the attacks on his faith.
“The founders of our country went to great lengths, and even put it in our Constitution, that we would not choose people for public office based on their religion,” he said, turning to Mr. Perry. “It was that principle that I wanted you, governor, to say is wrong.”
Polls show Romney has the best chance of any Republican of defeating Obama, whose approval ratings have dropped as he struggles to revive the economy and cut the U.S. unemployment rate from 9 percent.
Pizza magnate Cain has headed recent polls of Republicans, many of whom think Romney is not conservative enough to deserve the nomination. Cain struggled to explain how middle-income Americans would avoid paying higher taxes under his signature “9-9-9” tax reform plan.
Cain and his 9-9-9 plan were a central target at the debate, where CNN moderator Anderson Cooper let the candidates fight it out.
“Herman, I love you brother, but let me tell you something. You don’t need to have a big analysis to figure this out,” said Perry, who showed a more robust performance than in recent debates.
Cain insisted that his plan to reduce personal income and corporate taxes to 9 percent and create a 9 percent national sales tax would not raise taxes on middle-income Americans despite expert analysis that it would.
After the debate, Cain said he felt he had come through unscathed because the candidates are having a hard time puncturing his 9-9-9 proposal.