All that missionary field service paid off for Mitt Romney in the GOP debate Tuesday when the Texas governor confronted him like a heathen in a barroom hankering for a brawl.
"Mitt," said Rick Perry, squaring off as he called him out, "you lose all of your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year." In a likely attempt to pre-empt Romney's attack on Texas' porous border with Mexico, Perry slammed his opponent's stance on immigration as the "height of hypocrisy."
The old charge that the former Massachusetts governor hired a grass-clipping service employing workers without papers was dealt with about as forthrightly as politics allow. During the set-to, however, each candidate was stripped down to his bare essentials: Perry, the gunslinging lightweight, versus Romney, the missionary on the make.
Perry's opening sucker punch loosed a stiff Romney belly laugh. The startled reaction is familiar to atheists whose counter-arguments have poleaxed street peddlers hawking their religion. What followed is just as familiar. The former missionary demanded order like a man accustomed to deflating, if not soothing, cantankerous sinners hell-bent on trashing the sacred message along with the messenger. Opening with a jab, Romney said: "I'm speaking, I'm speaking." Then he threw a countering hook: "This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and so I understand that you're going to get testy."
Indeed, Perry, the short-lived front-runner who had sleepwalked through the last debate, was sinking in the polls with some $17 million from contributors who expected a better return on their investment. So the Texan shot out of the debate chute like a Brahma bull, Bos indicus, ripping and snorting. At one point he jabbed his right index finger at his taller opponent, who was standing adjacent. The missionary in Romney placed his open left hand on the shoulder of his antagonist, half scolding, half cajoling.
The tension between the two candidates would last the entire night — and perhaps will last forever, unless they emerge someday as running GOP mates; desperation has linked up stranger bedfellows.
In a Republican race brimming with surprises as well as eccentrics, Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather Pizza, had slipped into the vacuum left by the faltering, three-term governor of the state that has fielded three of the last eight U.S. presidents. No one was more surprised at his front-runner's status than the carefree motivational speaker with shallow presidential hopes and pockets shallower still.
Warming up for Romney, Gov. Perry lashed a body away to his right at the besieged Cain, who was struggling mightily to motivate himself under the floodlights. "Herman, I love you, brother," Perry called out to the pizza man, countering Cain's plea for a complex examination of his "simple" plan. "You don't need to have a big analysis to figure this thing out. Go to New Hampshire, where they don't have a sales tax, and you're fixing to give them [a 9 percent] one. They are not interested in 9-9-9."
The entire stage piled on Cain's tax plan: Ron Paul of Texas, because it was "regressive"; Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, because it was too tough on "families"; Romney, who reached to shield the middle class against it; while Michele Bachmann, who shares with Cain — and apparently with Perry — an ignorance of geography, said that the 9-9-9 plan would give Congress a "blank check."
Elaborating in her inimitable style, Rep. Bachmann of Minnesota reasoned that "a liberal president and a liberal Congress" would likely run Cain's 9 percent tax "up to maybe 90 percent? Who knows?" As for her geography, the proud member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence complained during the debate that President Obama "has put us in Libya; he is now putting us in Africa."
As Bachmann and others misfired on the issues, candidate Romney appeared to have trouble even pinning down his bona fides. At one point dismissing Perry as a career politician, Romney bragged that he would "post up well against President Obama" because he'd "spent my life in the private sector." Responding to Perry a few minutes later, Romney said, "I'm very proud of the fact — actually, during the four years we were both governors … " admitting, perhaps inadvertently, that he had not, in fact, "spent my entire life in the private sector."
So it went for two hours at the Venetian Resort Hotel, as the seven candidates chewed over each other's records on job creation, budget deficit, defense spending, Reaganism, foreign aid and the controversial fence, electrified or otherwise, on the Mexican border.
The GOP debate and the race itself resemble nothing so much as the start of a 26-mile marathon involving obese couch potatoes woefully out of shape. The grim reality for the Republicans is that one of these potatoes is likely the best they can bring to the market this time around.
Les Payne is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former editor and columnist at Newsday.