Former Godfathers Pizza executive Herman Cain, right, took much of the… (Scott Eells, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Hanover, N.H. — Targeted by a Republican field trying to blunt his renewed surge to the front of the presidential pack, Mitt Romney found himself under fire at a GOP debate for his economic record, his jobs plan and the healthcare mandate he approved as governor of Massachusetts.
The attention underscored Romney's heightened status after weeks in which rival Rick Perry, governor of Texas, suddenly surpassed him, and then almost as swiftly fell under the weight of middling debate performances. The pattern continued Tuesday night: While Romney parried his opponents with general ease, Perry struggled to maintain a presence during the two-hour forum at Dartmouth College.
During an exchange in which the candidates were invited to pose a question to the rival of their choice, Perry took on one of Romney's chief vulnerabilities: the healthcare plan he instituted in Massachusetts, which was a precursor to President Obama's federal health plan, reviled by many Republican voters.
Noting that one of Romney's own economic advisors had equated "Romneycare" to "Obamacare" and faulting the plan for pushing up small business premiums, Perry asked Romney how he would respond to criticism of his "signature legislative achievement."
Romney pivoted swiftly to an attack on the fact that, under Perry's watch, one million Texas children are uninsured.
"We have the lowest number of kids as a percentage uninsured of any state in America. You have the highest," Romney said, swatting down Perry's attempt to interrupt and comparing him unfavorably with his predecessor as Texas governor. "Under President Bush, the percentage uninsured went down. Under your leadership, it's gone up."
"The truth is, our plan is different [from Obama's plan], and the people of Massachusetts, if they don't like it, they can get rid of it…. But I'm not running for governor of Massachusetts. I'm running for president of the United States. And as president, I will repeal Obamacare."
Given a chance to explain his state's high number of uninsured, Perry returned instead to his energy plan, which he said would create 1.2 million jobs and open up a "treasure trove" of energy resources in America. The details of the plan are due to be released Friday.
"There are people sitting out there around the kitchen table watching TV tonight who are looking for someone to lay out an idea that truly will get this country back working again," Perry said. "And that's why I lay out, without having any congressional impact of all, how to get our energy industry back to work." He went on to blame the healthcare problems in Texas on the federal government.
Rather than being dominated by a Romney-Perry dust-up, the debate was notable for the attention paid to rising Republican candidate Herman Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza executive who, at times, dominated the debate with his jokes and his "9-9-9" plan for the economy.
The debate in New Hampshire, which will hold the nation's first primary as soon as January, came hours after Romney announced he had won the coveted endorsement of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — another sign that the Republican establishment is aligning behind Romney despite concerns about the healthcare mandate and, more broadly, his authenticity as a conservative.
But Christie, who was in the audience, was mentioned only once, far fewer times than Cain's 9-9-9 plan, which would replace the current tax code with flat individual, corporate and national sales taxes of 9% each.
With some prompting from panelists from debate sponsors Bloomberg Television and the Washington Post, his rivals ridiculed the proposal, arguing that it is overly simplistic and that the national sales tax would simply give Washington politicians another revenue pipeline that would be impossible to stem later.
"I think it's a catchy phrase," said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. "In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it."
Citing her brief career as federal tax attorney, which spanned just five years until 1993, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said Cain's 9-9-9 proposal "isn't a jobs plan; it is a tax plan." Bachmann also suggested turning the figures upside down, to 6-6-6, a Biblical sign of the devil.
"When you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the details," she said to laughs.
Cain shot back that his rivals' proposals were rooted in the current tax code, a symbol of how aligned they are with Washington's dysfunction.
"9-9-9 will pass, and it is not the price of a pizza, because it has been well-studied and well-developed," Cain said. "It starts with, unlike your proposals, throwing out the current tax code. Continuing to pivot off the current tax code is not going to boost this economy."