HANOVER, N.H. — Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain learned last night what it’s like to sit among the top tier of candidates in the GOP presidential race, as his rivals poked fun at and dismissed his “9-9-9” tax plan, which he argues would kick-start economic growth.
In the opening minutes of Tuesday night’s debate, Mr. Cain found himself on the receiving end of some stiff criticism from his GOP rivals over his plan to replace the current tax code with a personal income tax of 9 percent and a 9 percent national sales tax. By the end of the night, just about everyone had taken a shot at the proposal.
“I think it’s a catchy phrase — in fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard it,” quipped former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. minutes after former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum suggested the plan would either die in Congress or hand Democrats another way of taxing Americans.
When the issue resurfaced later in the debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann said Mr. Cain’s economic approach is “not a jobs plan — it is a tax plan.”
“If you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it around, the devil is in the details,” the three-term Minnesota congresswoman joked.
Mr. Cain, though, proved quick on his feet throughout the evening.
His claimed that U.S. voters want a bold economic plan and 9-9-9 offers just that. Asked about a recent Bloomberg News analysis that found his plan would not be revenue neutral, Mr. Cain quickly brushed aside the criticism, saying “the problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect.”
“[The plan] 9-9-9 will pass, and it is not the price of a pizza, because it has been well studied and well developed,” he said, adding at one point that the issue highlights the difference between, “me, the non-politician, and all of the politicians.”
The exchanges reflected how the dynamics of the Republican race have changed since the candidates last met in Florida.
With polls now showing him as a legitimate rival for Mr. Romney’s front-runner status, Mr. Cain found himself targeted by questioners more than Rick Perry, the three-term Texas governor who has been dogged by underwhelming debate performances.
Mr. Perry returned repeatedly throughout the evening to his forthcoming energy independence plan.
Pressed for details, Mr. Perry said, “I’m not going to lay it all out for you tonight. Mitt’s had six years to be working on a plan I’ve been in this for about 8 weeks.”
Mr. Huntsman squeezed in a dig at Mr. Perry with a suble reference to the “Mormon” issue.
Mr. Huntsman, who like Mr. Romney is a Mormon, introduced a question to the former Massachusetts governor by saying: “I promise this will not be about religion.”
When the audience responded to that line with a collective “oooooh,” the former Utah governor turned to Mr. Perry and said, “Sorry about that, Rick.”
Mr. Huntsman then asked Mr. Romney about layoffs and job losses that occurred under his watch as head of Bain Capital.
Mr. Romney shot back: “We didn’t take things apart and cut them off and sell them off. We helped start businesses.”
The Romney camp is pushing Mr. Perry to more forcefully repudiate a Southern Baptist pastor and Perry supporter who has said Mormonism is a cult.
The setting of the 90-minute affair here at Dartmouth College also was unlike any before it, as the eight GOP rivals sat around a wooden table, rather than standing shoulder-to-shoulder at lecterns. So was the focus of the event, with The Washington Post and Bloomberg hosts billing it as a debate about the nation’s economic ills and possible remedies for pulling the country out of the ditch.
Outside the debate hall, the political world continued to shift as well, as pent-up frustration over joblessness and the country’s gloomy fiscal prospects continued to play out in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, with protests against corporate greed and social inequality in various cities.
Mr. Cain also came under fire from Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who accused him of criticizing efforts to audit the Federal Reserve. And then he hit Mr. Cain for offering up former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan as the model for a federal reserve chairman.
“Alan Greenspan was a disaster,” Mr. Paul said flatly, before mocking Mr. Cain for describing his potential pick for the job as “confidential.”
“Spoken like a true insider,” he said, alluding to Mr. Cain’s time as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Mr. Romney and the other GOP contenders said a mismanaged federal government, not Wall Street, was to blame for the country’s economic woes.
Mr. Romney said he would fire Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, but he defended the Bush administration’s bailout of the nation’s financial institutions: “We could have had a complete meltdown of our entire financial system.” He also promised to go after China for its currency manipulation and vowed not to cut defense.
Mrs. Bachmann put the blame for the fiscal meltdown at the feet of the federal government. “You can trace it right back. … It was the federal government that pushed the subprime loans,” she said.
Mr. Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Mr. Perry also tried to chip away at Mr. Romney’s front-runner status, hitting his 59-point economic plan as too complicated, and his plan to zero out the capital-gains tax for people earning less than $200,000 a year and the universal health care plan he signed into law in Massachusetts.
Mr. Romney handled the accusations with relative ease, telling Mr. Cain that simple answers aren’t always remedies for difficult problems. He told Mr. Gingrich that the middle class is struggling, while poor people have government safety nets and “the rich are doing just fine.”
It became clear as the evening wore on that Mr. Romney, after having recaptured the lead in some national polls, had returned to the above-the-fray style that he embraced before Mr. Perry entered the race and sprinted to the front of the pack — prompting fireworks between the two men in recent debates. It was a different story this time around. While the other GOP contenders used their opportunity to question — in many cases attack — a rival on an issue, Mr. Romney threw Mrs. Bachmann a softball about how she would get people back to work.
Earlier in the day, the Romney camp received a powerful boost by getting the endorsement of Chris Christie. Speaking at a packed ballroom in the nearby Courtyard Hanover Lebanon hotel, the New Jersey governor lauded Mr. Romney as a turnaround specialist in both the private and public sectors, and described him as the most electable candidate in the field.
“I’m here in New Hampshire today for one simple reason: America cannot survive another four years of Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney is the man we need to lead America, and we need him now,” Mr. Christie said.
Before the debate, Mr. Cain received more good news, as two new presidential polls showed him running first in South Carolina and neck-and-neck in Virginia. Another survey released Monday, placed him a distant second to Mr. Romney in New Hampshire and well ahead of Mr. Perry, who had dropped toward the bottom of the pack, alongside Mr. Santorum.