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

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:

As the two continued to speak over each other and Mr. Perry kept pressing his attack, Mr. Romney turned to his opponent and said sharply, "This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that, and so you’re going to get — you're going to get testy."

Mr. Perry's eyes narrowed and he licked his lips, before yielding the floor to Mr. Romney.

During the course of the exchange, Romney explained that he had hired a lawn care company that had, unbeknown to him, employed undocumented workers, a perfectly plausible explanation, but one that showed Romney in a rattled state and called attention to his wealth at a time when many Americans are suffering economically. At one point, Romney even quoted himself saying to the contractor, "I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, and we can't have any illegals."

Before the topic was exhausted, Romney said that under Perry's leadership, Texas saw a 60 percent increase in "illegal immigrants."

Perry may have succeeded in unnerving Romney for a time, and even exposing some of Romney's weaknesses, but he did so in a way that made him seem mean-spirited, and Romney still got the best of Perry in every round.

The Hermanator Defends Kill-the-Mexicans Fence Proposal and 9-9-9 Plan

Now tied for first place with Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, the former operative for David Koch's Americans For Prosperity, had some explaining to do about his own immigration policy. On the stump, Cain had been saying that, if elected, he would build an electrified fence that would span the entire southern border -- one that would electrocute anyone who tried to illegally enter the U.S. On the campaign trail, Cain told reporters that he was joking -- but that he was serious. So Cooper asked for some clarification, which was not forthcoming.

"Let me give a serious answer," Cain replied. "Yes, I believe we should secure the border. I believe it would be a combination of a fence, technology, as well as, possibly, boots on the ground for some of the more dangerous areas. I don't apologize at all for wanting to protect the American citizens and to protect our agents at the border."

Not Much 411 on 9-9-9

This was to have been Cain's first big test -- a debate that would turn around him, given his surge in the polls, which now show him tied for first place with Mitt Romney. Never before has a black candidate (Cain eschews the term "African American") risen to such heights in the GOP. But the focus on Cain proved to be short-lived before the cameras last night, as Romney and Perry fought for the alpha male prize.

The debate did begin as a referendum on Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan, which calls for cutting the corporate tax rate to 9 percent, combining income and payroll taxes into a single 9 percent tax on income, and imposing a 9 percent national sales tax. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas called it "regressive," Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minn., said the sales tax amounted to a value-added tax that would force up the price of all goods because the tax would also apply to the raw materials and component parts of any product. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Ga., lauded the fact that Cain's plan was "bold" but said it was wrong, and Romney opined that people would be required to pay extremely high taxes at the check-out line when they combined the national tax with state sales taxes.

Santorum and Perry were especially condescending, with Santorum describing Cain as "well-meaning" and Perry using a much more vernacular style when talking to Cain than he did when speaking to Romney.

"Herman, I love you brother, but you don't have to have a big analysis to figure this thing out," Perry said. "Just go up to New Hampshire where they don't have a sales tax and you're fixin' to give them one. they're not interested in 9-9-9. What they're interested in is flatter and fairer."

Perry promised, as he did during last week's debate, that he'd have an economic plan out soon. "I'll bump plans with you, brother, and we'll see who has the best idea for how to get this country workin' again," Perry said.

"Unfortunately, none of my distinguished colleagues who have attacked me here tonight understand the plan," Cain said, complaining that they were comparing apples to oranges when they spoke of state sale taxes and his proposed 9 percent national sales tax in a single breath.

"I'm going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it because I've got to pay both taxes," Romney responded, "and the people in Nevada don't want to pay both taxes."

No Questions About Cain's Koch Connections

For the last six years, Herman Cain has worked closely with and for Americans For Prosperity and the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, the groups founded by billionaire David Koch that organized the Tea Party, and that set the stage for the take-over of state legislatures the U.S. House of Representatives by Tea Party-identified Republican candidates.

The last time I was at the Venetian, in 2010, I sat in on a break-out session at the AFP Foundation's RightOnline conference, where Herman Cain spoke on behalf of a program he was fronting together with the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore, called Prosperity 101, that he deemed to be the right's "answer to ACORN," referring to the now-defunct community organizing group. (Read AlterNet's expose on Prosperity 101 here.)

Prosperity 101 was launched by Mark Block, then director of the Wisconsin chapter of Americans For Prosperity, and now Cain's campaign manager. Last weekend, the Associated Press published its own investigation of Cain's extensive links to David Koch and his brother Charles, the principals of Koch Industries, who bankroll, both personally and through their foundations, an array of right-wing groups, including the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which is responsible for drafting much of the state-level legislation targeting public employees that has passed this year. (Full disclosure: I now blog on a freelance basis for the AFL-CIO News Now blog.)

Almost all of Cain's campaign staff members are linked in some way to the Koch brothers. Yet not one question was asked tonight about his affiliation with the billionaires who are known for their companies' record of environmental violations. It would, in fact, be fair to ask if his very candidacy was launched by Americans For Prosperity as a way to push other candidates to the positions favored by the Kochs.

Perhaps CNN producers just haven't noticed the overwhelming evidence for Cain's deep ties to two of the richest men in the world. Or perhaps to do so would conflict CNN's apparent bid to become the network of favor for the Tea Party.


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