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Associated Press/Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack (pool)

Frontrunner face-off

Campaign 2012 | Rick Perry and Mitt Romney do battle while seven other GOP hopefuls attempt to gain ground

FOX News and Google made a valiant effort to make a nine-candidate Republican debate entertaining to a wider audience Thursday night, self-proclaiming it as "the most interactive debate ever." Moderators kept the Orlando forum moving by mixing in Google search data that was loosely relevant to the topics, a visual feature called word clouds and audience questions submitted on YouTube.

Gary Johnson, who hadn't appeared in a GOP debate since the first one in May, delivered the line that got the most laughs. "My neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this administration," he said, borrowing a joke reportedly used by Rush Limbaugh that took a dig at President Obama's promise that jobs would result from stimulus spending.

Frontrunners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney had dustups several times but they seemed to lack the sting of real animosity. At one point, Perry framed the word "badminton" as the two exchanged jabs. Late in the debate, Perry came the closest to delivering a heavier attack, attempting to pin the "for it before he was against it" label on Romney, but tripped on his lines while trying to rattle off three examples. The two also squared off over Social Security and healthcare, with Romney insisting Perry was backing off his Social Security stance outlined in his book, and Perry accusing Romney of doing the same on his Massachusetts health insurance law. Neither line of attack was memorable, but the time allowed reinforced the impression that the pair are beginning to put distance between themselves and the field. Romney, ever practiced, gets in more digs at the president's jobs policies, while Perry spends more time on defense as the current poll leader.

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During questioning about immigration, Michele Bachmann promised a border fence down to the last inch and opposed any taxpayer benefits to illegal immigrants or their children. Newt Gingrich renewed his call for English as the official language of government.

Perry again defended his support in Texas for education benefits for children of those in the United States illegally, directly appealing to a sense of compassion. Romney noted that a year's in-state tuition for the University of Texas was cheaper by $22,000 for illegal immigrants than for out-of-state citizens. Perry argued that illegal immigrants were there through no fault of their own and an education helped keep them from being a drag on the state's finances. "This was a state issue. Texans voted on it, and I still support it," Perry noted.

Rick Santorum effectively pressed the point, saving Romney from making a further attack, by arguing that Perry's policy in Texas went beyond allowing them to pursue an education, offering them preferential treatment over out-of-state U.S. citizens. Perry's response stuck to his basic immigration message: boots on the ground and aviation assets to secure the border.

Ron Paul continued to offer the most ardent opposition to fences, calling them a method of "people control." He opposes any steps that could lead to a national identification card and the offering of the benefits to illegal immigrants.

Gingrich again made the most of his limited time on camera. On unemployment, he urged using the idle time for educational investment in human capital: "I believe deeply [that] people should not be given money for doing nothing."

Herman Cain said his concerns with the President Obama's healthcare law stem from his personal battle with cancer. For nine months, beginning in the spring of 2006, the speed of his treatment was the key to his beating the 30 percent survival odds, with rapid decision-making "not on a bureaucrat's timetable."

Responding to a question, Bachmann briefly defended her comments about a link between the HPV vaccine intended to prevent cervical cancer and resulting mental disabilities. She was relating a story told to her by an emotional mother, she said, immediately refocusing the challenge to Perry. She said his executive order was not appropriate for a governor to make and was influenced by big drug company lobbying.

Perry's response was short, a tactical improvement on the previous debate. He said a woman in her early 30s battling cervical cancer lobbied him for the vaccine and that he "erred on the side of life."

The candidates weighed in on education with support for stepping back from federal involvement and a preference for parental or local controls and more choice. Paul slammed the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act.

On foreign policy, Romney blasted Obama's treatment of relations with Israel, and Perry questioned U.S. disinterest in working with allies, specifically India as a counterweight to other nations in that region. Jon Huntsman tangled with Santorum on the role of U.S. troops on foreign soil. Santorum champions the assessment of generals in the field, while Huntsman says the American people are ready to bring the troops home. Both earned applause for the energy of their argument.

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