Gov. Rick Perry is back in the saddle.
Zeroing in on Mitt Romney like a prairie varmint and telling Herman Cain that they'll be "bumpin' tax plans" soon, Perry rode back into the middle of the Republican presidential race Tuesday night with some of his old swagger and his saddlebags still full of cash.
Ten weeks and four more TV debates away from the Iowa caucuses and the launch of election season, Perry remains the Anti-Romney.
If you're a Republican who can't stomach a former Massachusetts governor as the nominee, Perry has $17 million to win your vote between now and spring.
Instead of the meek, mumbling candidate who got lost in his own words last week in a debate on obscure Bloomberg TV, Perry was at his strongest for a large CNN audience in Las Vegas on a night when the show didn't have to compete with playoff baseball.
He introduced himself as an "authentic conservative," not a "conservative of convenience," and tried to portray himself as tougher than Romney on illegal immigration, reviving a 2007 Boston Globe story about Guatemalan illegal immigrants found mowing Romney's lawn.
Unable to cut off Perry, Romney turned to the audience.
"It's been a tough couple of debates for Rick," Romney said, patting Perry on the shoulder.
If this was a tough debate for anyone, it was Georgia Republican Herman Cain, who faced criticism early over his tax plan and then seemed to vanish into the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.
Before the debate, the question was whether Perry would fritter away his donors' campaign cash the way Texas presidential candidates John Connally and Phil Gramm did in 1980 and 1996.
TCU political science professor Adam Schiffer is too young to remember Connally's loss to Ronald Reagan. But he said Perry is in a stronger position now, because Romney is drawing only a consistent 25 percent in polls.
"He's stuck," Schiffer said of Romney.
"That's still where Perry's window remains."
Schiffer, an expert on political media coverage, called the debate "great theater" and said Perry was the beneficiary of "low expectations."
"Romney is the front-runner," Schiffer said.
"Cain is the flavor of the month. Perry will get some positive press. He's very much in this race."
Perry isn't just along for the ride.