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I came across the phrase ‘tear a piece out of' Obama in the debate’ in the following statement in the article titled “Obama Math: Obama Math: 8.1 + 13,300 + 50 = 270” in New Yorker magazine (September 10):

“Of course, something could still happen to change the polling dynamics. Romney could tear a piece out of Obama in the debates; the tsunami of negative ads the Republicans are about to unleash could conceivably turn around some Obama-leaning states; there could be an “October surprise.” As of now, though, there is no sign of Romney getting the surge he needs.”

I guess ‘tear a piece out of” means to snatch an advantage out of, or take the lead to somebody (If my interpretation is wrong, please correct me), but I can’t find this phrase as an idiom in any of dictionaries at hand.

What does 'a piece' represent for? I mean 'a piece of' what? Is “tear a piece out of”somebody / something a popular idiom, or just a set of words?

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

What you are "tearing a piece out of: is their flesh, literally or figuratively. In figurative use it means to damage an opponent, to 'draw blood' (another similar figure of speech), or in short: to wound. It's a metaphor of tooth and claw.

Its use is not exactly common, but neither is it rare.

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Where I live, "tear a strip off sb" is more common. This Ngram suggests it is universal, and this one that "tear a piece out of sb" is almost unused in British English. – Roaring Fish Sep 11 '12 at 6:47
@RoaringFish I find these differences fascinating - for my part, I've never heard the "strip" variation over here in the States. Regarding the Ngrams, I'm not certain they can differentiate between tearing a strip of somebody vs. something, alas. – Mark Beadles Sep 11 '12 at 12:43

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