GOP Candidates Take Shots At Cain's Economic Plan

Former pizza chain executive Herman Cain, who's risen to second place in several polls, was the new target for attacks from his Republican rivals at Tuesday night's presidential debate in Hanover, N.H. With his 9-9-9 economic plan, Cain plans to scrap the tax code and replace it with a 9 percent income tax, sales tax and corporate tax.

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The single subject of last night's Republican presidential debate was the economy, and the candidates agreed on one thing: They blame the government rather than Wall Street for the sluggish economy.

They questioned President Obama and the Federal Reserve, and also went after each other, including one new target, as NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Last night was Herman Cain's turn in the spotlight. The former CEO of Godfather's Pizza jumped to the top tier of the Republican field because of his debate performances and his 999 Plan to scrap the tax code and replace it with a nine percent income tax, sales tax and corporate tax. Now Cain needed to show he could be a serious candidate, not just the flavor of the moment. So he tried to take on the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, who was seated right next to him on the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

HERMAN CAIN: The 999 Plan that I have proposed is simple, transparent, efficient, fair and neutral. My question is to Governor Romney. Can you name all 59 points in your 160-page plan, and does it satisfy that criteria of being simple, transparent, efficient, fair and neutral?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: Herman, I've had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems. And I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate.

LIASSON: Romney never bothered to take on the substance of the 999 Plan. For him, Cain is not a real threat. He's more of a helpful buffer between Romney and the other candidates, candidates like Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who now has to get past Cain in order to revive her own faltering campaign. Bachmann attacked Cain's idea of a consumption tax.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: A sales tax can also lead to a value-added tax. So once you get a new revenue stream, you're never going to get rid of it. And one thing I would say is, when you take the 999 Plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil's in the details.

LIASSON: The candidate with the most at stake last night was Texas Governor Rick Perry. The frontrunner when he got into the race, Perry's seen his support drop by half after his disappointing performances in the previous debates. Last night, Perry was clearer and more concise - for example, when he defended a state fund in Texas that subsidized new technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: While this country was losing two-and-a-half million jobs, Texas was creating one million jobs. That's the kind of leadership that America's longing for: someone that actually understands that you have to be able to give a climate where people know they can risk their capital and have a chance to have a return on that investment.

LIASSON: Perry has raised $17 million, and he's already using it on tough Internet ads attacking Mitt Romney for his Massachusetts health care plan. Last night, Perry pointed to criticism of the plan from one of Romney's own advisors.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

PERRY: Romneycare has driven the cost of small-business insurance premiums up by 14 percent over the national average in Massachusetts. So my question for you would be: How would you respond to his criticism of your signature legislative achievement?

LIASSON: Romney was more than ready to respond.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

ROMNEY: And I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish. I'll tell you this, though. We have the lowest number of kids, as a percentage, uninsured of any state in America. You have the highest. You...

PERRY: (unintelligible)

ROMNEY: I'm still speaking. I'm still speaking. I'm still speaking. We have less than one percent of our kids that are uninsured. You have a million kids uninsured in Texas. A million kids. Under President Bush, the percentage uninsured went down. Under your leadership, it's gone up.

LIASSON: Perry had to do more last night than not stumble or ramble. He needed to land a punch on Romney, and he didn't. Romney never even bothered to ask Perry a question.

So, last night's debate probably did little to change the race. Mitt Romney is still the frontrunner, without a formidable challenger at the moment. Although Romney's support seems stuck at around 25 percent, he continues to collect endorsements from the Republican establishment. He got a big one yesterday from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Christie is hugely popular among Republicans, and just recently decided not to run for president himself. He's seen as an authentic, tell-it-like-it-is conservative, and his endorsement is a powerful validator for Romney, who's struggled to connect with ordinary voters.

The Republican candidates meet again next week in Las Vegas for another debate.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Hanover, New Hampshire.

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