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GOP Debate: Perry and Romney Get Physical; Cain Given Pass on Koch Connections

Perry was determined not to bumble, and came off looking nasty. Romney got rattled and put his hands on Perry. And nobody asked Cain about his connections to David Koch.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry strode onto the presidential debate stage at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas last night as a man who had something to prove: he had to prove that he could speak coherently and that he had an idea or two. Instead he wound up proving that he is one nasty piece of work.

The Religious Test

When last we left Mr. Perry in our chronicle of the contest for the Republican Party presidential nomination, he was on the stage of the big religious-right gathering in Washington, D.C., known as the Values Voter Summit, whereupon he lauded the Texas preacher who had introduced Perry as the "genuine" Christian in the race. Then, just outside the ballroom where Perry delivered his speech, Pastor Robert Jeffress told reporters that, because former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, then the clear frontrunner in the race, is a Mormon, he belongs to a cult and is not a "genuine follower of the Lord Jesus Christ."

At the start last night's debate, Perry described himself as the "authentic conservative" in the race, "not a conservative of convenience" -- a clear swipe at Romney's evolution from a more moderate politician to his current right-wing incarnation, and a reminder to evangelicals watching in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida of Perry's presumably superior genuine-ness in a less earthly realm.

Asked by Cooper to respond Jeffress' earlier indictment of his faith, Romney deftly noted that Perry had told the Values Voter audience that Jeffress, in his introduction of the Texan, "knocked it out of the park," but said he had heard worse said about his faith.

"The founders of our country went to great lengths, and even put it in our Constitution, that we would not chose people for public office based on their religion," Romney said. Then he turned to Perry, adding, "It was that principle that I wanted you, Governor, to say is wrong."

Asked by moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN to respond to Jeffress' characterization of Romney's faith, Perry said with a note of irritation, "I do not agree with that individual." He never mentioned Jeffress' name, nor repudiated the endorsement of the cult-dubbing pastor, who commands the pulpit of a 10,000-seat Dallas megachurch.

Immigration Smackdown

Less established than his Jesus cred are Perry's bona fides on the subject of immigration, on which he is in trouble with the nativist segment of the right for allowing young people who grew up in Texas, though without documentation because they were brought to the U.S. as children by parents who are undocumented immigrants, to attend state colleges at in-state tuition rates. In an earlier debate, Perry said it would be "heartless" to do otherwise. Nativists balked and Romney piled on, indicating he would never grant such an indulgence.

So, tonight, Perry came out swinging, reviving a 2006 Boston Globe story about a lawn crew -- that turned out to employ several undocumented workers -- hired by Romney to keep the grounds of one of his big houses.

Here's how the New York Times described the exchange:

Mr. Perry did not hesitate to make it personal, accusing Mr. Romney of having hired illegal immigrants to work on the lawn of his Massachusetts home.

"Mitt, you lose all of your standing from my perspective because you hired illegals in your home," Mr. Perry said. "And you knew for — about it for a year."

He went on, "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."

Mr. Romney at first sought to deflect Mr. Perry’s attack by giving a stage laugh and saying: "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."

Perry just wouldn't stop talking and Romney, whose podium was next to Perry's, stepped into Perry's space and placed his hand on Perry's shoulder as he demanded his turn to speak. Now, if these candidates debating in Atlantic City, bound by the Jersey rules of engagement, rather than Las Vegas, Perry would be within his rights to punch Romney in the nose. Instead, Perry leaned into Romney's space with his hands open, but extended in Romney's direction. Romney appealed to Cooper, who stood by rather helplessly. Then, as recounted in the Times: