RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And I'm Ari Shapiro sitting in for Steve Inskeep. Good morning. In Las Vegas last night, the hottest show on the Strip was arguably the Republican presidential candidates' debate. The CNN debate, moderated by Anderson Cooper, was expected to be a test for businessman Herman Cain. Cain has gone from Nowheresville to something like frontrunner status in the last few weeks. But it was Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose poll numbers have dropped after lackluster debates, who showed the most combative side. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Former Godfather's Pizza executive Herman Cain has become known for his down-to-earth eloquence, and just one single policy proposal. Altogether now: It's 999. That's the percentage of tax he wants Americans to pay on personal income, corporate profits and purchases. And now that Cain's virtually tied for first with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the latest poll, just about every other candidate on stage took a turn explaining why 999 is really a big zero. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: If we give Congress a nine percent sales tax, how long will it take a liberal president and a liberal Congress to run that up to maybe 90 percent? Who knows?

JAFFE: And this was former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RICK SANTORUM: Herman's well-meaning, and I love his boldness, and it's great. But the fact of the matter is, I mean, reports are now out that 84 percent of Americans would pay more taxes under his plan.

JAFFE: Cain didn't argue for his plan so much as repeat it and tell everyone that they were wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

HERMAN CAIN: I invite every American to do their own math because most of these are kneejerk reactions.

But Texas Governor Rick Perry wasn't buying it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Herman, I love you, brother, but let me tell you something, you don't have 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 999.

JAFFE: For the first time, Perry looked like he was glad to be on the debate platform, ready to mix it up with his competitors and enjoying himself, especially when he was going after Mitt Romney - for example, accusing him of hiring illegal immigrants as gardeners.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

PERRY: And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you're strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAFFE: Romney had employed a landscaping company that had been found to have undocumented workers on the payroll. Romney confronted the landscaper and when the pattern persisted, the company was fired. So Romney felt justified when he said...

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: I don't think that I've ever hired an illegal in my life. And so I'm afraid - I'm looking forward to finding your facts on that because that just doesn't...

PERRY: I'll tell you what the facts are...

ROMNEY: Rick, again, Rick...

PERRY: ...you had the...

ROMNEY: Rick, I'm speaking. I'm speaking. I'm speaking.

PERRY: The newspaper - it's time for you to tell the truth.

ROMNEY: You get 30 seconds.

PERRY: It's time for you to tell the truth, man.

ROMNEY: This is the way the rules work here is that I get 60 seconds...

PERRY: Well, no, but the American people want the truth.

ROMNEY: ...and then you get 30 seconds to respond, right?

PERRY: And they want to hear you say that you knew you had illegals working at your firm.

ROMNEY: Anderson, would you please, would you please wait? Are you just going to keep talking? Are you going to let me finish with my – what I have to say?

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)

JAFFE: The crowd didn't much like that, though it must be mentioned that there seemed to be a large number of Romney supporters in the hall. But the jeers didn't seem to bother Perry in the least. There were more free-for-alls like that one before the evening was out. But Perry tread more carefully when the subject of Romney's religion came up. An evangelical pastor who supports Perry had called Mormonism a cult and said that Romney was not a Christian. Asked to respond, Perry said this is a country with freedom of expression.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

PERRY: That individual expressed an opinion. I didn't agree with it, Mitt, and I said so.

JAFFE: For his part, Romney seemed to let it roll off his back.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: You know, with regards to the disparaging comments about my faith, I've heard worse, so I'm not going to lose sleep over that.

JAFFE: After the debate, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said he thought that Perry's aggressive behavior backfired.

ERIC FEHRNSTROM: Rick Perry had a strategy coming into this debate to kill Mitt and he ended up killing himself. The reason I say that is because of the audience reaction. Every time Rick Perry resorted to a negative attack against Mitt Romney or a personal cheap shot, the audience booed.

JAFFE: But Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan said he liked his candidate's performance and had no regrets.

RAY SULLIVAN: We feel like he forcefully defended his record and dominated tonight's debate. That's a win-win for us all the way around. Tonight was a very good night for us and it gives us a lot to build on going forward.

JAFFE: The Republican candidates have debated five times in the past six weeks. But the next confrontation isn't until early November. So they have some time to rest up, let the bruises heal, and prepare their best shots before the next round. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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