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Romney sustains attacks, pushes back during Nevada debate

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Romney and Perry on stage at Tuesday's debate (Chris Carlson/AP)

Mitt Romney sustained attacks from all sides at Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate, but the former Massachusetts governor hit back at his opponents, displaying the tenacity that has kept him near the top of polls. But it remains to be seen if his offensive stance will secure him lasting support with voters.

In one of the many heated exchanges at Tuesday's CNN-sponsored debate in Nevada, several candidates ganged up on Romney over illegal immigration. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, after being criticized for his state's record on immigration, took the the issue a step further, referencing past reports that Romney employed illegal immigrants to do lawn work at his Belmont, Mass. home.

"Admit you lose all 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 at the height of hypocrisy," Perry said.

You can watch video of the exchange below:

Romney questioned Perry's account, explaining he dismissed the company after finding out about the illegal hires.  And when Perry tried to cut back in to the conversation, Romney made clear he'd had enough, going so far as to put a hand on Perry's shoulder (one of many action shot moments between the two men) to stop him from speaking. "You get 30 seconds. This is the way the rules work here," Romney said, as the two shouted over one another.

Romney is considered the clear frontrunner in Nevada, where fellow Mormons make up 11 percent of the population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Romney's faith surfaced as a point of contention during his 2008 presidential campaign, when some Republicans argued the former governor's religion would dissuade some primary voters from supporting his candidacy. And it has once again become an issue.

Pastor Robert Jeffress called Mormonism a "cult" at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C. where he introduced Perry earlier this month, sparking calls for Perry to condemn the remarks.

Debate moderator Anderson Cooper raised Jeffress' comments Tuesday night. All of the candidates were quick to defend religious freedom, but Perry, reminiscent of other debate fumbles, responded in what was one of his worst moments of the night. "The idea that we should not have our freedom of, of religion, uh to be taken away by any… means. But we also are a country that… is free to express our opinions." Perry noted he had already personally rejected the pastor's remarks.

Romney's Massachusetts health plan, which Democrats and the former governor's opponents argue was partially the basis for President Obama's health care law, also came under attack.

Following a scathing critique by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Romney hit back: "Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you." Gingrich replied that remark was untrue, saying the idea of individual mandate came from the conservative Heritage Foundation. But Romney did get Gingrich to admit he previously supported an individual mandate.

Romney even took businessman Herman Cain down a notch. Cain--who is known for his oratorical skills and memorable buzz words--pushed back against attacks to his 9-9-9 economic plan using an apples-and-oranges analogy to describe tax plans.

But Romney refused to let him own that analogy.

"Whether you throw out the existing [tax] code and you put in our plan, you're still going to pay that," Cain said. "That's apples and oranges."

Romney replied, "Fine. And I'm going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it because I've got to pay both taxes, and the people in Nevada don't want to pay both taxes." He received wide applause.

You can watch the exchange below:

In the immediate wake of the debate, public reaction was mixed about whether Romney's performance helped him or if the attacks weakened his campaign and boosted Perry.

"It was his weakest performance to date," Aaron Goldstein wrote of Romney for the conservative American Spectator.

"Mitt Romney is the only person on the stage who understands -- or can at least speak clearly on -- the full breadth of issues that face the president. Romney took heavy fire from nearly everyone, but his rivals usually did more harm to themselves," wrote Taegan Goddard for Political Wire.

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