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Fight night in Nevada

Tuesday night’s Western Republican debate in Las Vegas was probably the most entertaining of the season, mostly because the top contenders — Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Herman Cain — all took some major hits. Romney, who has been the clear winner of most of these debates, probably still won this one, although he flashed his temper in a heated exchange with Perry and made a rare gaffe: In explaining away an attack made on him by Perry that he had hired illegal immigrants to tend to his yard, he said, “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.”

Right he is, although such an admission certainly does little to mask one of Romney’s critics’ best arguments, which is that he’s an overly image-cautious candidate who does things not out of conviction, but rather to make sure he looks the part of a conservative Republican.

Perry woke from his slumber, but he needs more than marginal performances at this point. While we believe Cain’s bubble will burst, Wednesday morning brought fresh news of his newfound strength: NBC News/Marist released two new polls of the South Carolina and Florida primaries; Cain was up 30% to 26% over Romney in South Carolina, and up 32% to 31% over Romney in Florida. Meanwhile, Perry was at 9% and 8%, respectively, in both polls. He’s not finished, but he needs to start performing in these debates. Tuesday night was a start, but he’s got a long way to go.

— Kyle Kondik

Brown remains slight favorite in Massachusetts

Consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren has burst on to the scene in Massachusetts, giving hope to Democrats who want to unseat Republican Sen. Scott Brown and reclaim Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat. At the very least, Warren should have no trouble winning the Democratic nomination; despite there being a number of candidates in the field, none of them had generated much excitement amongst Democrats before Warren’s entry. Warren also raised a ton of money to kick off her campaign — $3.2 million, the best of any Senate candidate in the third quarter. (Brown also has a lot of coin himself; he raised a not-so-shabby $1.6 million in the most recent quarter and has $10.5 million in the bank.)

Polling indicates that Warren, fresh off her successful campaign launch, is within striking distance of Brown, but we’re keeping this race in the heavily Democratic Bay State at “leans Republican” for now.

Here’s why: We wonder how Warren will develop as a candidate, and the initial returns are mixed.

After getting the best of Brown in a silly tiff over his posing nude in the early 1980s for a magazine, Warren made a gaffe of her own earlier this week when she said she was going to go for the “hick vote.” Warren was trying to poke fun at herself — the Harvard professor is from Oklahoma and described herself as an “elite hick” — and this whole episode is probably much ado about nothing. But before we’re willing to call Massachusetts a “toss-up,” we need to see more of Warren as a candidate.

— Kyle Kondik