If last night’s debate wasn’t the most edifying of the series this year, it may have been the most entertaining.  The Republican presidential candidates went from last week’s relatively serene discussion of economic policies to last night’s cage match on … well, mainly economic policies.  The evening started off with Herman Cain getting blasted on all sides over his 9-9-9 plan and offering only a repeated complaint of “apples and oranges” in response.  But Cain turned out to be just the undercard, as Rick Perry came alive and slugged it out with Mitt Romney over immigration.

CNN asked me to participate in their media forum after the debate to provide analysis, along with my Salem colleague Bill Bennett and others:

Last week, we expected a full assault on Herman Cain and his economic plan in his first debate as a front-runner in the Republican presidential primary. We got it tonight, apparently after the other candidates took a week to peruse the plan. Cain ended up on the defensive much of the night, mainly on his 9-9-9 plan and the national sales tax proposed in it. Almost every candidate made substantive attacks on Cain, who fell back to characterizing their arguments as “apples and oranges” over and over again. …

As for Mitt Romney, for once he spent most of the night on defense. Rick Perry and Rick Santorum went after Romney hard, and Perry’s attack on Romney for employing illegal immigrants had the former Massachusetts governor rattled for the first time in this year’s debates. Perry didn’t have a great night, but for the first time he didn’t have a bad night, and he remained energetic and on the attack all through the debate.

Bill disagrees on Perry:

Mitt Romney, under fire from all sides, showed that he is not afraid to hit back. He also demonstrated leadership by trying to elevate the conversation on the economy and immigration.

Rick Perry hurt himself tonight. His direct attacks on Romney stepped over the line. Voters want leadership and solutions and Perry neglected that for cheap shots aimed at Romney. The remaining candidates performed well, especially Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann, but have a lot of ground to make up. Rick Santorum is still a presence and he may have put some holes in the armor of the front-runners.

I disagree completely.  Romney got rattled on stage, and everyone knew it.  He lost his temper, raised his voice, and looked decidedly uncool in his efforts to push back on immigration — a topic which Romney used in earlier debates as a club against Perry.  This time, as Politico reports, Perry did his homework and came prepared:

Rick Perry went into Tuesday night’s debate looking to rattle Mitt Romney — and it worked.

Perry’s been under fire for his own immigration record, and resurrecting the 2007 report that Romney had hired illegal workers helped him blunt the advantage Romney had been able to get on the issue as Perry looks to recover from his collapse in the polls.

Plus, according to a Perry source, there was an added bonus: by going after Romney personally — the accusation has to do with Romney’s own house — they saw the potential to make Romney react the hardest.

And despite the headlines at the time, the issue didn’t get the attention Perry’s campaign believes it could have when it surfaced in Romney’s first run for president four years ago, and gives Perry a new opening into coming at Romney as a flip-flopper.

That doesn’t erase Perry’s own problems on immigration — as the Boss Emeritus points out in detail today — but it will make Romney think twice about reaching for the “magnet” argument again.  It’s hard to score points on Perry if Romney has to defend his own lawn as one of those magnets, even after being warned that the company he had hired used illegal immigrants to perform the work.

This is the first debate Romney unquestionably lost.  Perry won to an extent by exceeding expectations and staying in the fight the entire debate, but was it a breakout performance?  Doubtful, although it might be enough to get a few of his supporters back in the fold and regain a little momentum.  But the real winner might be Newt Gingrich, who despite having one bad moment with Romney on the health-care mandate once again came out looking positive, well-informed, and fit for battle.