Immigration and health care took center stage in Tuesday night’s Republican debate with frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, forced on the defensive on both issues.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, shedding the low-key, almost lethargic style of previous debates that had sent his poll numbers plunging, went on the offensive by attacking Romney for allegedly employing illegal immigrants as gardners. “The idea that you can stand here and say you’re tough on immigration is the height of hypocrisy,” Perry said.
“I don’t think I hired an illegal immigrant in my life,” Romney responded at first. But after a testy exchange, Romney, in an admission that could come back to haunt him, reversed field and admitted he had hired a contractor to mow his lawn that hired illegal immigrants without his knowing it.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania scored perhaps the most direct hit on the frontrunner. He said Romney’s role in bringing health care reform and an individual mandate to Massachusetts destroyed his credibility as the poster boy for a party pledged to repeal President Obama’s signature health care reform law.
“What you did is exactly what Obama did,” Santorum said. “You focused on the wrong problem. You focused on the question of access [to health insurance] without controlling costs.”
Romney repeated his stance from previous debates that his plan was tailored to the needs of Massachusetts and wasn’t what he would prescribe for the rest of the nation. “The people of Massachusetts liked it,” he said. “Getting health care costs down in this country is something we have to do at the national level.”
Romney clearly was the main target of his opponents, who sought to put him off stride after a week of media coverage suggesting that he was the inevitable Republican nominee despite an equally strong showing by Herman Cain. Romney wasn’t quite as smooth as he has been in previous debates, and at times seemed testy or snappish.
Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO who has surged into the lead in some polls, took some early hits in the debate as both Romney and Perry attacked his 9-9-9 tax reform plan that would raise sales taxes on Americans. Most economists and analysts who’ve scrutinized the Cain plan say it will hurt low and moderate income families most. The Tax Policy Center, for instance, issued an analysis Tuesday that said 84 percent of taxpayers would pay more under the 9-9-9 plan.
“It is revenue neutral,” Cain insisted. “It does not raise taxes on those who earn the least.”
The debate largely avoided discussing one of the more pressing issues facing the nation and the people in Nevada, where the debate took place. When asked by a member of the audience what the candidates would do about the housing foreclosure crisis that has devastated the state and left it with the highest unemployment rate in the country, none offered a specific plan other than getting the economy growing again.
Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota scored points by empathizing with the plight of people facing unemployment and foreclosure. “I talk to moms,” she said. “You’re talking about women at the ends of their ropes because they’re losing their homes for their families . . . husbands through no fault of their own are losing their jobs.
“The president has failed you on this issue of housing and foreclosures. I will not fail you on this issue. We will turn this economy around. We will get you jobs. Hold on,” she said.
The seven candidates on stage – former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman chose not to participate in this latest debate – agreed on a number of issues that could prove controversial during the general election. They all opposed storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, a hot button local issue in Nevada.
“The idea that 49 states can tell Nevada we want to give you their nuclear waste doesn’t make sense,” Romney said. Instead, he said, utilities should raise prices on electricity to the point where some states will accept compensation for taking the waste. “Somebody is going to offer them a pretty good deal,” he said. “Let the free market work.”
“You’re correct in allowing the states to compete with each other,” Perry said in a rare moment of agreement between the two frontrunners. “Some state out there will see the economic issue and they will have it in their state.”
All the candidates also agreed that there ought to be deep cuts in foreign aid.
GOP Debate Scorecard
Best command of the facts
The former Speaker of the House has been struggling since last summer to get his campaign off the ground and move up in the polls. But Tuesday night he showed off his full range of knowledge of government, health care, immigration, energy and defense – and at times looked like the only adult on stage while his rivals took pot shots at one-another. He once again chastised the moderator for trying to pit Republicans against one another. “Maximizing bickering is not the road to the White House" Gingrich said. Gingrich was harsh in condemning Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers for taking what he believes is a reckless approach to defense spending, by arbitrarily setting a target of slashing at least $500 billion from the Pentagon budget in the coming years.“I’m a [defense] hawk, but I’m a cheap hawk. The fact is, to say I’m going to put the security of the United States up against an arbitrary budget number is suicidally stupid.”
Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum
The two bickered over health care reform, with Santorum saying that Romney lacks any credibility in pledging to repeal President Obama’s health care reform law when it was the Massachusetts health care law that Romney pushed through as governor that laid the foundation for Obama’s legislation. “What you did is exactly what Barack Obama did . . . Focused on the wrong problem,” Santorum said. “The right problem is health care cost … You expanded the pool of insurance without controlling costs and you blew a hole in the budget up there.” When Romney tried to respond, Santorum kept cutting him off. “Rick, you had your chance, now let me speak,” Romney said.
While trying to fend off a deluge of criticism of his 9-9-9 tax reform plan, Cain repeatedly charged his opponents with trying to confuse the issue by “mixing apples and oranges.” At one point, in trying to explain the intricacies of his proposal for replacing the current tax code with three different nine-percent tax rates, he said, “The state tax is an apple. We are replacing the current tax code with oranges. So it’s not correct to mix apples and oranges.”
Most Inept Performance
Although Romney started out the evening rather smoothly, defending his job creation package and his stance on dismantling Obama’s health care law, he fell apart when Gov. Rick Perry came after him on immigration. Romney declared that securing the U.S. –Mexican border is “not that hard” and that the only thing the U.S. needs to do is build a well-staffed fence and “turn off the magnets” from attracting illegals, like in-state tuition. That gave Perry the perfect opening to call Romney a hypocrite for being a “magnet” himself by employing undocumented aliens to do lawn work at his home—a charge that Romney struggled to respond to.
Best line of the evening
While sparring with Perry again on immigration, Romney snapped: “I suggest if you want to become President of the United States you’ve got to let both people speak” after Perry kept interrupting him. Romney took another jab at Perry, saying “This has been a rough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that and you’re going to get testy.”