Jim Cole / AP
Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011 | 11:57 p.m.
Welcome to the Mitt Romney show, brought to you by the numbers 9, 9 and 9 — as in GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain’s tax plan.
That’s the very abridged version of Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate, hosted by Bloomberg and the Washington Post in New Hampshire. Next stop: Las Vegas.
Next Tuesday’s Republican debate at the Venetian will likely reach a broader audience — host CNN is carried by more cable providers — and feature a broader range of questions than Tuesday’s roundtable discussion at Dartmouth College that stayed true to its promise of a singular focus: the economy.
The economy is the premiere election issue nationwide, but nowhere quite so acutely as in Nevada, where unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates lead the nation.
Most of the Republican presidential candidate have laid out their prescriptions for getting the economy back on track — Rick Perry being the noticeable exception; his plan is expected out in the next few days — but Tuesday night was the first protracted opportunity for the candidates to drill into each other on their competing proposals.
The man of the evening was indisputably Romney, who sailed to victory in Nevada’s 2008 caucuses. He was happy to have the spotlight on the economy, even as his competitors launched into him in a question-your-colleague round.
“Your past employment with Bain Capital as more of a financial engineer, somebody who breaks down businesses, destroys jobs...The whole discussion around this campaign is going to be job creation. How can you win that debate given your background?” Jon Huntsman asked Romney.
Romney responded, “We didn’t take things apart and cut them off and sell them off. We, instead, helped start businesses...and that created tens of thousands of new jobs.”
Newt Gingrich posed another question. “You have a capital gains tax cut for people under $200,000, which is actually lower than the Obama model...What was the rationale for setting an even lower base marker?” he asked.
Romney said that “middle-income Americans have been the people who have been most hurt by the Obama economy.”
Herman Cain, meanwhile, asked Romney if he could name all 59 points in his 160-page jobs plan, saying that all jobs plans should be “simple, transparent, efficient, fair and neutral.”
Romney unveiled his jobs plan in North Las Vegas last month.
With a laugh of willing defeat, Romney replied: “Simple answers are always very helpful but oftentimes inadequate.”
It was a not-so-subtle dig at Cain, whose “9-9-9” plan was the most-referenced economic framework of the evening.
“It’s a catchy phrase. In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it,” Huntsman said, a reference to Cain’s previous position as CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain.
Cain’s “9-9-9” plan, in his own words, “is not the price of a pizza” but is “a bold plan to grow this economy.” The three nines refer to three flat tax rates that would comprise a new tax code: a corporate flat tax, a personal income flat tax and a national sales tax.
The competition does not like it.
Rick Santorum suggested it was impractical theorizing.
“The cool thing about my plan, as opposed to Herman’s plans and some of the other plans out here, it will pass tomorrow,” Santorum said.
Michele Bachmann delivered an even heavier counter-punch in both substance and spin.
“The last thing you would do is give Congress another pipeline of a revenue stream, and this gives Congress a pipeline in a sales tax. A sales tax can also lead to a value-added tax,” Bachmann, a former tax lawyer for the Internal Revenue Service, said. “When you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil’s in the details.”
It’s tough words coming from Bachmann, who’s lost the place in the front-runners’ circle she claimed in August when she won the GOP presidential straw poll at the Iowa State Fair.
But she can still cause a lot of trouble for the new front-runners, and that may be just what Romney is counting on.
With primaries and caucuses just weeks away, the tenor of debate was friendly but fierce: a climate that made Romney’s soft throw to Bachmann all the more noticeable.
When it came time to pose questions, most of the candidates threw down the gauntlet at their biggest rival, but Romney simply invited Bachmann to “expand on your other ideas...to get people back to work,” all but setting up a soapbox for her stump speech that followed.
Bachmann’s not just a thorn in Cain’s side. She’s also complicated the political equation for Perry, going after him relentlessly over an executive order he signed mandating human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines for all teenage girls in Texas.
That topic wasn’t part of Tuesday’s debate, but she homed in on Perry, nonetheless, when it came time to challenge a competitor, recalling his past support for Democrat Al Gore and his record of increased spending in Texas.
“How can we trust you to not go down the Obama way and overspend and pay for that spending with indebtedness on the back of the next generations?” she asked.
Perry defended Texas’ balanced budgets and low debt in his answer. But it wasn’t Perry’s night.
For better or worse, Perry has commanded the spotlight since he joined the presidential circuit in August, drawing the attention of his competitors and the endorsements of influential Republicans, including Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval.
But he was a second-stringer at Tuesday night’s debate with his flaws exposed, and not just on his past dealings with Democrats. Perry, though he’s promised to roll out his economic prescription in the next few days, had no plan to trumpet and defend Tuesday night, which handicapped him from the start. And when called upon to take a stand on an economic issue, he reverted back to energy as a cure-all so many times it began to look like a crutch.
Perry wasn’t the only one to have weaknesses exposed. Romney came close to praising the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, when asked how he’d contend with another economic crisis.
TARP, which included the big bank bailout, has made the government money through its repayment provisions, but it remains a politically tainted issue.
Cain endured a moment as the economic pariah of the panel when he said he’d appoint a new Fed chairman the likes of Alan Greenspan, the Fed chairman from 1987 to 2006 who is accused of worsening the severity of the housing bubble by lowering interest rates.
In response, Ron Paul was all too happy to retell this cautionary economic tale, with some laughs at Cain’s expense.
The fact that the candidates even got into such discussions was revelatory, as it revealed the prowess of some and the discomfort of others when it comes to hashing out the finer points of economic policy. But it’s not likely a forum that can be repeated, partially because it’s not a crowd-pleaser.
Compared to other debates, this one was light on the stump speeches and even lighter on audience reaction, save for one heckler toward the end. And that’s something some Republicans were clearly missing.
“I cannot wait until the grownups ask the questions conservatives care about in Vegas with CNN,” tweeted Erick Erickson, who runs the conservative blog RedState.com.