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Republican presidential candidates double down in Vegas debate, while dispute over GOP primary calendar heats up

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) participate in the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) participate in the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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Republican presidential contenders gathered last night in Sin City for the eighth GOP debate this year, and this one was bruising. Texas Governor Rick Perry came out fighting, targeting frontrunner Mitt Romney over the inadvertent hiring of illegal immigrants as lawn care workers at his former home.

“You stood here in front of the American people and did not tell the truth, that you had illegals working on your property,” Perry said. Romney shot back that he’d fired the lawn company, saying, “Look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. That’s – I'm running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.” Romney vowed that as president, he’d crack down on illegal immigration and put in place an E-Verify system, which Perry opposed. CNN moderator Anderson Cooper let the two go at it – inspiring boos and cheers from the audience.

Former pizza magnate Herman Cain had his work cut out for him, defending his 9-9-9 tax plan and his surprise standing atop opinion polls. Romney, Perry and Cain were joined by four others: Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann, Texas Representative Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. One GOP contender made headlines by being a Vegas no-show. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman skipped out because he’s boycotting the Nevada caucuses in a skirmish over the GOP primary calendar.

It all began when Florida moved its primary date into January – in an attempt to gain relevance in the nominating fight. Then Nevada scheduled its caucuses for January 14. Now officials in New Hampshire, traditionally the “first in the nation” primary, fear they’ll have to move their contest into the month of December. Republican officials are pressuring Romney and others to join Huntsman’s boycott if New Hampshire refuses to hold their caucuses later in the month. So far, Romney has refused.


Did Perry’s “kill Mitt” strategy hurt or help his candidacy? Did Romney come off strong or too thin-skinned? And is Nevada betting too much by trying to upstage the Granite State? When will the primary battle end – or should we say, begin?


Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and adjunct faculty at USC Annenberg School

Jonathan Wilcox, republican strategist and former speech writer for Gov. Pete Wilson