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Tuesday night's brawl of a debate in Las Vegas erased any doubt that the fight for the Republican presidential nomination would get bitter. Texas Gov. Rick Perry aggressively parried former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who looked rattled for the first time.
If that hand-to-hand combat continues, the Republican primary could just become a long, drawn-out fight. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing for the eventual nominee is unclear.
Before the debate, Alex Castellanos, a former consultant to Romney who is now neutral, said a big fight with Perry might be just the thing Romney needed to dispel the lingering doubts Republican voters have about him.
"There's very little new information about Mitt Romney — his negatives are built into his stock price," he said. "What it might do, though, is strengthen Romney, because if Romney sits there imperturbable, unflappably cool and keeps on going, this may be what Mitt Romney needs — he may need to beat someone to become someone."
A Testy Exchange Over Illegal Immigration
But on Tuesday night, Romney was anything but unflappable, as Perry used some old negative information to attack him on illegal immigration:
PERRY: Mitt, you lose all of your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home, and you knew 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.
ANDERSON COOPER (moderator): Gov. Romney?
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 — the newspaper --
ROMNEY: I'm speaking. I'm speaking. I'm speaking.
ROMNEY: You get 30 seconds. This is the way the rules work here, is that I get 60 seconds and then you get 30 seconds to respond. Right? Anderson?
PERRY: And they want to hear you say that you knew you had illegals working at your --
ROMNEY: Would you please wait? Are you just going to keep talking?
PERRY: Yes, sir.
ROMNEY: Are you going to let me finish with what I have to say?
ROMNEY: Look, Rick --
COOPER: I thought Republicans follow the rules.
ROMNEY: This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that. And so you're going to get testy.
And 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:
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 got to let both people speak. So first, let me speak.
ROMNEY: So we went to the company and we said, look, you can't have any illegals working on our property. I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals ...
Will A Battle-Tested Nominee Emerge?
This was a rare moment for Romney, who hasn't gotten testy in previous debates or had to fend off a spirited challenge. But Perry has the resources to continue attacking Romney on immigration and other issues.
That'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 then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton all the way to Puerto Rico.
When Obama had to compete in all 50 states and Puerto Rico in 2008, says Burton, "he was able to build organization every place he went, leaving infrastructure behind in all those different states."
And that long battle with 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 Romney or Perry, says Republican strategist Mike Murphy.
"Having a spirited primary that ends at 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," he says. "Because a lot of the messages of the primary don't play so well in the general election."
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.