GOP Debate Fireworks Settle Nothing

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Tempers flared in Las Vegas on Tuesday between virtually every candidate, but the primary season's most entertaining installment likely left voters' minds unmoved.

The first hour of the Republican presidential debate witnessed heated exchanges involving Mitt Romney and Rick Perry (who were conveniently placed next to each other on stage) as Romney chuckled at and lectured Perry's interruptions, and between Romney and Rick Santorum, who seemed to be David against the ex-Massachusetts governor's Goliath.
GOP candidates sizzled under the Vegas lights on Tuesday

"You just don't have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare," Santorum said as he compared Obama's health care plan to Romney's Massachusetts health care plan. Romney shot back: "I said, 'No, this was something that was crafted for Massachusetts.'" Santorum didn't back down: "Governor, that's not what you said." A shouting match led Romney to interject: "Rick, you had your chance, let me speak."

Though the exchange was just one of many fiery clashes, it's probable that undecided voters came away from the debate with more than a load of Hollywood enjoyment.

"It was kind of a free-for-all -- don't know if anyone really benefited from that other than it being entertainment," Tim Callanan, Berkeley County, S.C., Republican Party chairman, told TheStreet. "That whole Perry, Romney back and forth was just -- you know -- I don't think it benefited either of them. I think it hurt them both."

Romney and Perry have hurled negative campaign rhetoric at each other away from the debates, but at one point on Tuesday the two grew so frustrated with each other that Romney reached over and clutched Perry's shoulder while Perry shook his finger in Romney's face.

The crowd began to boo the two men as the rest of the candidates looked on with expressions that appeared somewhere between frightened and amused.

"I don't know if this debate will change a whole lot of minds," Robert Uithoven, Republican political consultant from Nevada, told TheStreet. "But Newt Gingrich always performs well in these debates -- outside of Romney and Herman Cain who took most of the attacks tonight."

The first question by CNN, which hosted the debate, asked the GOP presidential hopefuls for their thoughts on Cain's "9-9-9" plan. Each candidate mustered a few canned responses to rebuke the plan -- a plan which has helped catapult the former Godfather's Pizza CEO into the upper tier of most major polls.

Cain repeated after each candidate's critique that they had all misunderstood his tax code reform and suggested they read it again.

"The challenge for Herman Cain is to immediately come out Wednesday and begin to counter some of the charges against his tax plan," Uithoven said. "If he's successful he can hold on to that No. 2 spot."

Though the first hour of Tuesday's event made for exciting television, the debate's toxic atmosphere likely repelled undecided voters who have seen far too much of the same conduct on Main Street.

"With the lead he has over Perry, Romney didn't have to do it, and if anything he hurt himself by allowing himself to get dragged into the mud," Callanan said. "You know, we're running for the office of the president and that sort of behavior is beneath that office."

-- Written by Joe Deaux in New York.

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