CONCORD, N.H. — Fresh off the first GOP presidential debate in which he was considered a top contender — and a top target — Herman Cain urged state lawmakers Wednesday to support him over Mitt Romney, saying his rivals' attacks on the Cain plan to scrap the tax code show he is headed in the right direction.
The former corporate CEO also ventured into the thorny subject of race, contrasting his experience growing up in the racially segregated South with that of President Obama, telling reporters that "my church is still in the 'hood," and suggesting he's more connected with the trials and travails of the black community than the president.
Mr. Obama's upbringing "was very different than mine," he said. "I grew up in the South and the '50s and '60s," Mr. Cain said after delivering his campaign sales pitch to lawmakers. "I was the son of a working dad who worked three jobs. We grew up in segregated areas and segregated schools, lived through the desegregation of those. I lived through the transitions that black people have lived through in this country, unlike President Obama."
"I still connect," he added. "My church is still in the 'hood, it is the same church I grew up in."
The remarks followed Tuesday's debate at Dartmouth College in nearby Hanover, where political pundits and GOP insiders generally agreed that Mr. Cain performed well and that Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, looked the most presidential, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry fell flat — in part because he showed up to an economic fight without an economic plan.
"I think it was a big mistake to go to the only debate about jobs and the economy being held in what could be the most fiscally conservative state in the country and not be able to talk about your plan in detail — and then say, 'I have a plan, but I'm not going to tell you what it is tonight,' " said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire. "I think it was a lost opportunity."
Aside from the Perry performance, political observers said the debate likely will be best remembered for the focus on Mr. Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan, which he argues would jump-start the economy by replacing the current tax code with a personal income tax of 9 percent, 9 percent corporate tax and a 9 percent national sales tax.
Michael Dennehy, a veteran of New Hampshire politics, said Mr. Cain defended his plan well and should expect more scrutiny as long as polls place him in the top tier among candidates. But he also warned that the plan could become Mr. Cain's "Achilles' heel" in a state such as New Hampshire, where there is no local sales tax, or in other areas of the country where the federal sales tax would be lumped on top of the local levy on sales.
"Herman Cain will live and die by his economic plan," Mr. Dennehy said, adding that no matter how good an idea it might be, such dramatic change could overwhelm some voters.
The same eight candidates will face off in another debate, this one hosted by CNN, next week in Las Vegas, which will kick off the Western Republican Leadership Conference, a four-day gathering for the GOP grass roots.
On Wednesday, Public Policy Polling released a new survey showing Mr. Cain holding a 30 percent to 22 percent lead over Mr. Romney, while Mr. Perry placed fourth with 14 percent, just behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who came in third with 15 percent.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, announced that Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois and former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert were supporting his White House bid. The endorsements rounded out a three-day period in which the ex-governor secured the support of former Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Mel Martinez of Florida, and the backing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Mr. Perry traveled to Indiana on Wednesday, where he spoke at the state Republican Party's Presidential Forum in Indianapolis. The three-term Texas governor is scheduled to deliver a major policy speech on his energy-independence plan, which he says could produce 1.2 million jobs, Friday at a steel plant in Pennsylvania.
Back in New Hampshire, Mr. Cain, Mr. Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum spent part of the morning wooing members of the New Hampshire legislature, where they addressed lawmakers.
"You know you must be doing something right when you have arrows in your back," Mr. Cain told legislators, alluding to the criticism his GOP rivals lobbed at his "9-9-9" plan the night before.
Then he mentioned Mr. Romney.
"Those of you who do not support him, I'm asking for your support," he told the crowd packed into the House chamber. "And those of you who do support him, I'm asking you to reconsider."
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