LAS VEGAS — Presidential candidate Mitt Romney faced withering attacks from GOP debate rivals last night over the health care plan he spearheaded in Massachusetts, his perceived proclivity for switching positions, and his former lawn company’s use of illegal immigrants to mow the grass at his Belmont home four years ago.
Romney, who along with businessman Herman Cain is considered the national front-runner in the Republican nominating contest, was placed center stage and it did not take long for Governor Rick Perry of Texas and others to aim their barbs at him.
Perry raised accusations that Romney had hired illegal immigrants, insisting it hurt his credibility on the issue and was the “height of hypocrisy.’’ The charge clearly irritated the former Massachusetts governor, who has largely been able to deflect criticism in previous debates.
“Are you just going to keep talking?’’ a red-faced Romney said at one point, when Perry continued to interrupt him. “You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking. And I suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, you have got to let both people speak.’’
Romney’s frustration at times turned personal.
“This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that,’’ Romney said. “And so you’re going to get testy.’’
Romney faced similar charges on immigration when he ran for the GOP nomination in 2008 after the Globe reported that the company he hired for his landscaping, Community Lawn Service, continued to employ illegal immigrants a year after the newspaper uncovered the hiring practices. Romney fired the company in 2007.
“We went to the company and we said, ‘Look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property,’ ’’ Romney said last night. “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.’’
The debate capped a fall season that has included near-weekly debates — last night’s was the fifth since Labor Day — in an unsettled nominating contest that seems to have a new national front-runner each month. With voters expected to hit the polls within 90 days, the tempers that flared illustrated the high stakes, the sense that President Obama is vulnerable, and the apparent animosity Romney and Perry have for each other.
In displaying some passion that he lacked in previous debates, Perry proved to be effective when on the offensive. At times, however, he came across too aggressively and, when some of his attacks on Romney turned personal, the crowd booed. At one point, while discussing their respective job records, Perry told Romney bluntly, “You failed as a governor of Massachusetts.’’
For Cain, it was a particularly important debate. The Georgia businessman has soared in the polls on the strength of his ebullient, straightforward manner and his pitch for his 9-9-9 tax simplification policy. Yet he has been running his campaign on a shoestring and there has been little evidence he has the resources to mount a national effort.
His 9-9-9 plan, which would replace the federal tax code with 9 percent corporate, personal income, and sales taxes, was roundly criticized by his rivals. However, several, particularly Newt Gingrich, former House speaker, and Romney, prefaced their comments with praise for Cain’s audacity and perseverance in advancing the debate on taxes.
The criticism was led by Perry.
“Herman, I love you, brother,’’ said Perry. “But let me tell you something. 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 one. They’re not interested in 9-9-9.’’
Representative Ron Paul of Texas called the plan dangerous and regressive. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said it would give Congress a blank check to raise taxes. And Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, criticized Cain for taking away tax breaks for families.
“I like your chutzpah on this, Herman,’’ Romney said. “But I have to tell you, the analysis I did, person by person, return by return, is that middle-income people see higher taxes under your plan.’’
Cain countered that his tax plan would “liberate the American people’’ from the current tax code, which he characterized as a “10 million word mess.’’ He dismissed criticisms as “knee-jerk reactions’’ and admonished critics for comparing apples to oranges - to which Romney said, in reference to having to pay a federal sales tax on top of state sales tax, “I’m going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it because I’ve got to pay both taxes.’’
Romney, who has won praise for his poise and agility in previous debates, appeared to make a rare tactical misstep early in the debate. The second round of questioning was presented by moderator Anderson Cooper as a chance for Romney’s rivals to comment on his 59-point economic plan, which Perry resisted, instead concentrating on his own energy-exploration plan.
In response, Romney gave only standard boilerplate support for his own economic plan, considered the strength of his campaign, and then initiated discussion on health care, considered by some his biggest vulnerability.
The rest of the round of discussion shifted to his Massachusetts plan being the foundation for Obama’s national plan. Romney, continuing to defend the Bay State law while saying he would repeal the national plan, was forced back on his heels.
“You just don’t have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare,’’ said Santorum, adding that Romney did little to try to control spiraling health costs.
“Rick, I’m sorry you don’t like it,’’ Romney replied. “The people of Massachusetts like it, by about a 3-to-1 margin.’’
The debate, which aired live on CNN, took place in a state that has been hammered by the economy. Nevada has the nation’s highest unemployment rate and the highest home foreclosure rate. More than a fourth of the state’s population is Hispanic, so issues around immigration played a key role.
Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah, dropped out of the debate last week — and is also threatening to boycott the Nevada caucuses altogether — to protest the state GOP’s decision to hold its caucuses on Jan. 14, complicating the primary calendar for New Hampshire. Huntsman instead held a town hall meeting last night in Hopkinton, N.H.
Romney is the favorite in Nevada, a state that he won in 2008 and one where many caucus-goers share his Mormon faith.
Romney appeared both gracious and eloquent when the subject of his Mormon faith came up, the first time his religion has been a topic of a debate. Romney has called upon Perry to repudiate comments by one of his supporters, Pastor Robert Jeffress, who called Mormonism a “cult’’ but Perry, who said he disagrees with Jeffress, has stopped short of disavowing him.
While espousing freedom of religion, Perry said, “We also are a country that is free to express our opinions. That individual expressed an opinion. I didn’t agree with it, Mitt, and I said so.’’
Asked whether Perry’s answer was satisfactory, Romney said, “With regards to the disparaging comments about my faith, I’ve heard worse. So I’m not going to lose sleep over that.’’