ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tuesday night's brawl of a debate at the Venetian resort in Las Vegas erased any doubt that the fight for Republican presidential nomination would get bitter. Texas Governor Rick Perry lashed out at Mitt Romney, who looked rattled for the first time.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on what an aggressive primary means for the candidates and their campaigns.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: If the hand-to-hand combat voters saw on stage at the Venetian Hotel continues, the Republican primary just could become a long, drawn-out fight. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing for the eventual nominee is not clear.

Before the Las Vegas debate, Alex Castellanos, a former consultant to Mitt Romney who's now neutral, said a big fight with Rick Perry might be just the thing Romney needs in order to dispel the lingering doubts Republican voters have about him.

ALEX CASTELLANOS: There's very little new information about Mitt Romney. His negatives are built into his stock price. What it might do, though, is strengthen Romney. Because if Romney sits there imperturbable, unflappably cool and keeps on going, you know, this may be what Mitt Romney needs. He may need to beat someone to become someone.

LIASSON: But on Tuesday night, Romney was anything but unflappable, as Rick Perry used some old negative information to attack Romney on illegal immigration.

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RICK PERRY: Mitt, you lose all of your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home, and you knew for it - about it for a year. 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.

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(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ANDERSON COOPER: Governor Romney?

MITT ROMNEY: Rick, I don't think 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: Well, I'll tell you what the facts are.

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

PERRY: You had the - your newspaper...

ROMNEY: I'm speaking. I'm speaking.

LIASSON: It didn't stop there. The usually polished Romney was red-faced as the fight got personal with Perry over an issue Republican primary voters take very seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: We hired a lawn company to mow our lawn, and they had illegal immigrants that were working there. And when that was pointed out to us, we let them go. And we went to them and said…

PERRY: A year later?

ROMNEY: 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. So first, let me speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: So we went to the company and we said, look, you can't have any illegals working on our property. That's - I'm running for office, for Pete's sake. I can't have illegals. It turns out...

LIASSON: This was a rare moment for Romney, who hasn't gotten testy in pervious debates or had to fend off a spirited challenge. But Perry has the resources to continue attacking Romney on immigration and other issues. It's the kind of fight that could leave the eventual nominee's flaws exposed and campaign treasury depleted, something most parties and candidates have traditionally tried to avoid.

But a veteran of just this kind of drawn-out combat says a long primary isn't necessarily bad. Former Obama spokesman Bill Burton was along for the ride in 2008 that took Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton all the way to Puerto Rico.

BILL BURTON: What we saw in 2008 was when the president had to compete in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, that he was able to build organization every place he went, leaving infrastructure behind in all of those different states. And also, President Obama and now-Secretary Clinton were able to basically suck up all the oxygen for any coverage that was happening at the time.

LIASSON: And that long battle with Hilary Clinton strengthened candidate Obama for the general election. He didn't just coast to victory. He beat a giant. The same thing could happen to Mitt Romney or Rick Perry ,says Republican strategist Mike Murphy.

MIKE MURPHY: Having a spirited primary that ends in a reasonable time, like mid-March, is the best outcome, because you get battle-tested, you get better, but you can unify the party quicker. And the grinding and the clawing stops in enough time for the candidate to pivot to the general election and be competitive there, because a lot of the messages of the primary don't play so as well in the general election.

LIASSON: So Murphy hopes the Republican nominee will be the product of a heavyweight championship fight, just not one that lasts more than four or five rounds.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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