WASHINGTON -- The Republican presidential candidates tore into each other as never before in their latest debate, mindful that voting starts within 11 weeks and many GOP voters remain up for grabs.
Mitt Romney emerged from the two-hour forum Tuesday still the person to beat, but he was considerably scratched up on the issues of illegal immigration, health care and jobs.
The feisty faceoff in Las Vegas marked the first time the contenders treated Herman Cain as a serious threat, and they aggressively ripped his 9-9-9 tax plan, perhaps inflicting grave wounds.
And Texas Gov. Rick Perry snapped out of his sleepy debate style, criticizing Romney so vigorously that the two men seemed close to blows at times. Perry was forceful from the start, battling to end his campaign's recent slide and to re-establish himself as the most viable alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.
Cable TV viewers who watched the debate's first 60 minutes and last 10 minutes saw seven contenders make the greatest effort yet to distinguish themselves from one another and expose each other's weaknesses. That left comparatively little time to bash President Barack Obama, but that's something they all agree on anyway.
Some exchanges were personal, almost petty.
Perry said it was "the height of hypocrisy" for Romney to criticize the Texan's immigration record. Romney put his hand on the scowling Perry's shoulder and demanded, "Are you just going to keep talking?"
Rebukes of Cain's 9-9-9 plan dominated the debate's first 15 minutes. Cain, a former pizza company executive, climbed to the top of recent GOP polls by touting his proposal to scrap current income and payroll taxes and replace them with a 9 percent levy on personal and corporate income and a 9 percent national sales tax.
Virtually every rival took a shot at it. "That's a tax plan, not a jobs plan," said Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. She said a liberal president and Congress might push the sales tax to 90 percent, and consumers would blame vendors.
Several candidates cited a new report by the Tax Policy Center, a Washington think tank, that said Cain's plan would raise taxes on 84 percent of U.S. households.
Cain, on the defensive as never before, said critics were misinterpreting his plan and mixing apples and oranges. Romney turned the phrase against him, saying Americans would be taxed on apples and oranges because they would pay state and federal sales taxes in most states.
With Cain's 9-9-9 plan treated like roadkill, the candidates turned mainly to criticizing Romney and watching him and Perry spar in ways that hinted at real animosity. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who lost his bid for a third Senate term six years ago, often played the aggressor.
Noting that Romney's Massachusetts health care program had required residents to obtain medical insurance, Santorum said, "Your plan was the basis for Obamacare," the GOP epithet for the Democrats' 2010 health care overhaul.