The gloves are off now in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight, as viewers saw in Tuesday night's two-hour CNN debate in Las Vegas. Seven of the eight contenders got in on the bare-knuckle brawl, but most of the telling blows were exchanged between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, the two with the most money in hand and hence the likeliest to endure the approaching primary season.
Once again, Mr. Romney demonstrated a willingness to go toe-to-toe with Mr. Perry, refusing to be bullied by the intimidating Texan in their direct side-by-side exchanges. Again, as in a previous confrontation, Mr. Romney turned back Mr. Perry's interruptions by reminding him of the debate's rules and pressing on with his own answers.
It may have seemed to some viewers to be a small thing. But Mr. Romney's standing his ground was a sharp contrast with his own relatively timid showings four years ago, when his first bid for the nomination fell by the wayside. Mr. Perry at times seemed surprised that anyone would not wilt before his glowering, combative pose.
At one point, when Mr. Perry attributed the heavy influx of illegal immigrants into Texas to the "magnet" of job opportunities there, Mr. Romney jumped on him. The real magnet, he argued, was Mr. Perry's support of college tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants, a scheme not present in California or Florida, where illegal immigration had declined.
Mr. Perry countered by dusting off the old allegation from the 2008 campaign that Mr. Romney had hired illegal immigrants to mow his lawn, calling Mr. Romney's criticism "on its face the height of hypocrisy." Mr. Romney said as he had in 2008, that he had never hired an illegal. When he learned that the landscaping company on the job had used one, he reiterated, he dropped the employer.
The moderator, Anderson Cooper of CNN, chided Mr. Perry on his interruptions, observing with a grin, "I thought Republicans followed the rules." Mr. Romney picked up on the crack, needling Mr. Perry: "This has been a couple of tough debates for Rick, and I understand that, and so you're going to get testy."
Throughout the long debate, Mr. Romney took little guff from the others either. When long-shot former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also interrupted a Romney answer, he got the same rebuff from him over the rules. And when Mr. Santorum whined that Mr. Romney was out of time, Mr. Romney shot back that it was because of his interruption.
There is, to be sure, a perceptual risk in Mr. Romney's insistence on the rules being enforced that he, too, is whining. But his persistence in finishing what he's started saying, and blowing a whistle on Mr. Perry for trying to run roughshod over him, also has been showing an assertiveness not previously associated with his usual courteous demeanor.
The Romney-Perry exchanges took center stage, underscoring the likelihood the Republican race will continue for a time to focus on them. Former pizza company CEO Herman Cain, still running well in the polls, accordingly drew intensive questioning about his 9-9-9 tax reform proposal.
His responses to independent analyses that found it would raise taxes on lower and middle-class voters were unspecific and largely unconvincing. Mr. Perry joined in the hammering, telling Mr. Cain, concerning his proposed 9 percent sales tax, "Go to (early primary state) New Hampshire where they don't have a sales tax and you're fixing to give them one."
The CNN debate was the most combative Republican candidate exchange this year. One of the party's champion name-callers and hatchet men of old, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, felt obliged to commend Mr. Cain for offering his tax plan "as opposed to the junk that all too often is masquerading as politics in this country."
Near the end of the debate, Mr. Gingrich seemed to push back at the format, arguing that "maximizing the bickering is not the best road to the White House." If he becomes the Republican nominee, he said, he will challenge President Obama "to meet the Lincoln-Douglas standard of seven three-hour debates -- no time, no moderator, only a timekeeper."
It seems most unlikely right now that Mr. Gingrich will get his wish. Even contemplating the possibility of such a marathon encounter involving him would probably be enough to send most of us running for cover.