By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rick Perry put the political obituaries on hold on Tuesday, firing a volley of attacks at Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney in his strongest and most energetic debate performance.
With his poll numbers sliding after a string of poor debates, Perry accused Romney of hypocrisy on immigration and belittled his record on jobs in a feisty and sometimes personal fight that seemed to energize the Texas governor.
Perry was aggressive and sure-footed in laying into Romney, putting the stumbling and sluggish showings of the last two debates behind him.
"That was a much more robust Rick Perry than we have seen in other debates. He had his best debate by far," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. "He was starting to get under Romney's skin."
Perry's strong fund-raising performance -- he raised $17 million in the third quarter, better than Romney's $14 million -- and Romney's failure to win over conservatives gives Perry hope more than two months before the first Republican nominating contest in Iowa.
"People have not made up their minds yet," Bonjean said. "Perry has an opportunity to recover. This looked very much like a Romney-Perry race tonight."
The Texas governor could be in a good position to win back the status of the anti-Romney conservative candidate among Republicans if, as expected, businessman Herman Cain falls in the polls after his recent surge.
Perry launched his attacks early in the debate, turning to face Romney and resurrect charges from the 2008 presidential campaign that the former Massachusetts governor had used a landscaping company that employed illegal immigrants.
"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," Perry told Romney, who threw back his head and laughed at the charge.
"I don't think I've ever hired an illegal in my life," Romney replied. "This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that, and so you're going to get testy."
Perry also questioned Romney's record on jobs as Massachusetts governor and said it did not compare to his accomplishments in Texas. The two men, standing side by side in the middle of the set, frequently interrupted each other in what became an increasingly acrimonious showdown.
At one point, Romney turned to CNN moderator Anderson Cooper with a plaintive plea to try to get him to make Perry stop talking.
Perry also attacked surging rival Cain, who has capitalized on Perry's slide by gaining in polls with conservative support for his "999" tax plan that would scrap the existing tax code and create a 9 percent income, sales and business tax.
Cain took heavy criticism for his tax plan from all of the candidates, suffering his moment in the political hot seat after largely sliding through earlier debates unchallenged.
"We saw Herman Cain humbled a bit tonight," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said. "That could give Perry an opening to recover."
The pressure was on Perry, who surged into the poll lead after entering the race in August but saw his momentum erased by poor debates and by criticism of his Texas policies on immigration and on vaccinations for young girls.
Perry signaled his more aggressive approach from the first moment of the debate, concluding his introduction by describing himself as "an authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience" -- a clear shot at Romney.
Social conservatives and Tea Party activists have been suspicious of Romney's past as governor of liberal Massachusetts, where he backed a healthcare plan similar to Obama's national overhaul and once supported abortion rights.
Romney still has clear advantages in a Republican race that he has been planning for since a failed 2008 presidential bid against eventual nominee John McCain, giving him a huge head start in organization.
His smooth debate style and seasoned campaign-trail experience also have helped him avoid the pitfalls that have tripped up Perry and U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann.
But Perry showed the race may be a little tougher and more aggressively fought than it has been.
"If Perry had another debate tonight like the last two, people would have been counting him out," Bonjean said. "But the people who have been unhappy with his performances now have something to think about."
(Writing by John Whitesides; editing by Anthony Boadle)