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GOP fight night in Las Vegas: Mitt Romney faltered, but did Rick Perry win?

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was taken down a few notches in his Las Vegas debate appearance Tuesday night, but it’s far from certain that Texas Gov.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was taken down a few notches in his Las Vegas debate appearance Tuesday night, but it’s far from certain that Texas Gov. Rick Perry will gain much from his performance.

Governor Perry came out swinging in a bold effort to revive his once-promising presidential bid, going after Mr. Romney on illegal-immigrant yard workers, health-care reform, and job creation. Romney had answers to all three, but in the process, he allowed Perry to get under his skin – and revealed a side of himself that had not come through in the previous Republican debates.

Romney grew testy and a bit red-faced, at one point putting his hand on Perry’s shoulder as he fought back against accusations that he had hired undocumented workers at his home in Massachusetts. It looked as if there might be a repeat of two NFL coaches getting a little physical after their teams’ game last Sunday.

“Rick, I’m speaking, I’m speaking, I’m speaking, I’m speaking,” Romney said as the two talked over each other.

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“And it’s time for you to tell the truth,” Perry responded.

After more pleas for interruption-free time to respond, Romney looked to moderator Anderson Cooper for a lifeline. But, perhaps fitting for the Las Vegas venue, Mr. Cooper let them keep going at it. Romney sought to turn the tables on Perry: “This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick and I understand that, and so you’re going to get testy,” Romney said, to the cheers of a sympathetic audience.

But moments later Romney appeared to make a mistake. He explained that he had hired a company to do yardwork at his home, the company was found to include illegal immigrants, and he let the crew go. Romney said he told the company: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake. I can’t have illegals.”

None of the other candidates called him on that statement, but the suggestion that he worried about having illegal workers at his home only for political reasons could come back to haunt him.

Perry wasn’t the only candidate to go after Romney, and Romney wasn’t the only candidate to be targeted. Early in the debate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum repeated the by-now well-rehearsed charge that Romney’s Massachusetts health-care reform was a model for President Obama’s reform, then kept interrupting Romney as he tried to respond, in his typical pit-bull debate mode. The attack by Mr. Santorum, a long shot for the nomination, and Romney’s testy pleas for time to respond turned out to be a preview of the Perry-Romney smackdown.

Businessman Herman Cain also faced withering attacks on his 9-9-9 tax plan, but he kept his cool. Mr. Cain has been surging in the polls, and in some, he leads the field. He was expected to be the one with the bull’s-eye on his back in Las Vegas. But the dynamic of the debate, with Romney taking incoming from multiple directions, appeared to show a consensus that he is the true front-runner – with the money, organization, and résumé that could potentially take him all the way to the nomination.

Perry also has the war chest – $17 million raised in the last quarter – to stay in the hunt for the long haul, but his late campaign start and earlier debate gaffes damaged his effort. On Tuesday night, he showed a bit of the mojo that had earned him a reputation as a formidable campaigner in Texas. Now the question is, will voters who left Perry’s side give him a second look. And will Romney, who had sailed easily through the debates until Tuesday, find a smoother way to respond when his competitors turn into attack dogs.