If Rick Perry goes on to win the Republican nomination, the Las Vegas debate will be seen as the turning point. Perry wasn’t great, but he was good enough to get out of intensive care. He had a memorable in-your-face confrontation with Romney, and he recited enough talking points about jobs to get by. The audience didn’t like him–he was booed at the very mention of the pastor who said Mormonism is a cult (Nevada is, after all, next door to Utah, so Romney was playing on friendly turf)–but he gave his supporters what they have been waiting for, which was a feisty performance. There were actually two confrontations between Romney and Perry. The first came when Perry accused Romney of hiring an illegal alien to do yard work. This fell flat because, Romney said, he had no idea the worker was illegal; the contractor had hired him. It was an ugly exchange, and it is clear that Romney and Perry thoroughly loathe each other. Another confrontation occurred over Perry’s letter to senators right before the TARP debate, co-signed by the governor of West Virginia. Santorum accused Perry of supporting the TARP bailout and Perry hotly denied it. He claimed, unconvincingly, that the action he wanted was for the senators to cut spending. I have read the letter, of course, and it was carefully, or cleverly, worded so that it merely urged senators to take “action,” although if he had been against the bailout, the more likely wording would have been to ask senators to oppose it. I think Perry was “for the bailout before he was against it,” but you’ll never get a conviction on that charge because the letter is too ambiguous. Anderson Cooper asked the candidates if there was anything good about Obamacare and what they would do instead. The answers were pretty predictable: nothing good, and spend less on health care; let the states stretch the dollars as far as they can, which is not very far. Cain wanted “market centered reforms” such as loser pays and allowing insurance to be sold across state lines: a weak response. Perry was asked about the large number of uninsured folks in Texas, and he first said that we have one of the finest health care systems in the world, then he segued into the problem of a 1200 mile border and people coming to Texas to find jobs. He immediately followed up with, “Mitt, you hired illegals in your home,” and they were at each other’s throats, amid loud boos. Romney fired back, accusing Perry of providing a “magnet” that attracts immigrants–the college tuition credit. Bachmann tried to get into the illegal alien discussion but Perry squelched her with, “The federal government has failed miserably to secure the border, and for someone in Congress to lecture me is not right.” Asked about his plan, Romney said, we need a fence, more agents, and turning off the magnet of the tuition breaks. Romney said that Perry’s efforts on the border were like a team that had lost forty games in a row. He got booed for that. In addition to Perry’s saving his hide, this debate will also be remembered, I suspect, as the moment that Herman Cain peaked. I did not get to see the first part of the debate, but apparently Cain was under attack for his 999 plan from most of his GOP colleagues, who said it would lead to a tax increase for most middle class Americans. Cain was pretty subdued after that. He tried at the end to distinguish himself from Romney–“I’m Main Street. He’s Wall Street”–but the air was out of the balloon. There was one more flareup between Romney and Perry, when the former said that 40% of the jobs Perry created went to illegal aliens. Perry, furious, shot back, “You failed as governor of Massachusetts.” Perry was the aggressor for much of the debate. Romney kept his cool, and Perry was over the top. It helped him; as I said earlier, this is the Rick Perry the conservatives have been waiting to see. In the post-debate talking heds convocation, it was Ari Fleischer, I think, who said, “Nothing has changed, this is a race between Romney and Perry.” (It may have been David Gergen. I know that Gergen said, referring to the hostility Perry generated among the audience, “the big winner tonight was Barack Obama.” This was the Rick Perry we know: graceless and mean as hell. Romney is going to be on the receiving end of a lot of tough talk for the next couple of months–assuming that Perry has the staying power to cause him problems. * * * * This debate was the end of the beginning. I think we have seen the last of the complete gang of seven who debated tonight. This was probably Santorum’s swan song, and Bachmann’s as well. I doubt that we will see Huntsman again either. Cain will have some staying power, but with 999 on life support, I think his 15 minutes of fame are behind him. Romney, Paul, Gingrich, and Perry are left, and of those, Perry has the most to prove.