Perry took just about every available opportunity to attack Romney on everything from his economic record as governor to immigration—sometimes both at the same time. He answered one question about health care in Texas by attacking Romney’s hiring of illegal aliens, which was a bit head-snapping. "It's time for you to tell the truth,” said Perry about Romney’s use of a firm that hired illegal aliens. Going after Romney on immigration is a double win for Perry: It helps weaken Romney and helps clean up Perry’s problem with conservatives who don’t like his in-state-tuition-for-children-of-illegal-immigrants policy.
Perry wasn’t just attacking. As if taking a page out of Romney’s playbook, Perry avoided some chances to attack and used questions as opportunities to promote his record in Texas and his energy policies. He looked like a candidate who wanted the prize.
While Perry was competing for Most Improved, the award for Most Immature goes to Rick Santorum, who otherwise had some forceful moments defending the family unit, a winning position for conservatives. At one point Santorum nearly stomped his feet like a toddler in a sustained interruption of Romney. When Romney climbed out from under the fusillade, Santorum complained that Romney had run out of time—time that Santorum himself had taken up with his tantrum.
In the passion primary, the candidates’ contest to show voters that they care deeply about improving the economy, Perry flirted with being a bit overheated. The audience booed him when he continued to return to the issue of Romney’s hiring of illegal immigrants. Romney, meanwhile, gave it right back to his accusers, showing evidence of being an actual human being. That’s one way to see it. For others it might look like Romney was a little shrill and rattled as he lectured Perry.
How can you tell an experienced candidate? In the middle of the fracas over immigration, Romney stepped back to say that the reason everyone onstage was so passionate about illegal immigration was because they were passionate about legal immigration. Nevada’s voting population is 26 percent Latino, and Romney had his eye on that. In the one slip-up of his trademark technical precision, Romney said that he fired the lawn-mowing firm using illegal aliens. “You can’t have any illegals working on our property,” he said he'd told them. “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake.” This won't diminish the charge that he is more calculating than principled.
There have been eight debates. There will be 12 more. To invest each one with drama, the networks hosting them have to boast about how grave the stakes are. The hyperbole escalates to the point where it seems like the candidates might take a swing at each other. At moments during Tuesday’s debate, for the first time this year, the pre-debate hyperbole actually seemed plausible.