(Daniel Acker / Bloomberg )
Herman Cain, the rising star of the moment in the Republican presidential contest, was repeatedly put on the defensive over his tax-overhaul plan in a televised debate Tuesday night.
Several of his GOP rivals criticized a central facet of the Atlanta businessman's 9-9-9 proposal: a new 9% national sales tax. Noting that New Hampshire has no state income tax, Rick Santorum asked for a show of hands from New Hampshire residents in the debate audience who favored that proposal. Few hands went up.
"There you go, Herman. That's how many votes you'll get in New Hampshire," said Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, who added that Cain's proposal would never pass Congress.
Cain responded that Congress would approve it "because the American people want it to pass."
Rep. Michele Bachmann criticized Cain's idea because, she said, it wasn't a jobs plan: "The last thing you would do" is give Congress "another revenue stream. You're never going to get rid of it."
"Turn it upside down," she said of the 9-9-9 plan. "I think the devil's in the details."
The former Godfather's Pizza executive tried to counter a charge from one of the moderators in the debate, cosponsored by Bloomberg TV and the Washington Post, that his tax plan wouldn't raise enough money to fund the government.
"The problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect," said Cain, who said it was based on faulty assumptions.
The debate, held on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., was the first designed around the dominant issue of the 2012 campaign: the economy. The exchanges in the debate were more sedate than other recent GOP encounters but reflected the shifting status of the candidates in the highly fluid Republican field.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has fallen from the lead he held in national polls after entering the race in mid-August, was largely spared attacks by his rivals. At one point, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman took a jab at the Texan over a recent allegation by a Perry supporter who said that Mormons are members of a cult and aren't true Christians.
Huntsman, during a portion of the program in which the candidates questioned one another, prefaced a question to his fellow Mormon, Romney, that his inquiry wasn't about religion.
"Sorry about that, Rick," Huntsman said.
Perry, struggling to recover from shaky performances in recent debates, said he would unveil a jobs plan later this week around the issue of opening up additional domestic energy exploration, which he called "another American Declaration of Independence."
"We've got to have a president who is willing to stand up and to clearly pull back those regulations that are strangling the American entrepreneurship that's out there," Perry said.
Romney also grew testy during an exchange with Perry when the Texas governor asked about the remark of a leading Romney economic adviser who likened "Romneycare" to "Obamacare." Romney responded by pointing to the decline in the number of uninsured residents of Massachusetts and the rise in the number of uninsured children in Texas during Perry's 11 years as governor.
"I care about people," Romney said.
Romney defended his support for the 2008 Wall Street bailout, because the U.S. economy was "on the precipice and we could have had a complete meltdown of our entire financial system."
New Hampshire, the leadoff primary state, is practically Romney's home turf -- the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts has a vacation home in the Granite State, and he holds a large lead in polling there.
Romney made repeated references to Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), who joined the audience several hours after endorsing Romney as "the man we need to lead America."
Christie's endorsement, one of the most coveted of the pre-primary season, came one week after he decided not to run himself. The governor told New Jersey reporters that he'd been courted by Romney over the last year and that the two men and their wives had met privately last Saturday.
Christie also said he expected more of the major donors who had urged him to run and are still uncommitted to fall in line behind Romney now that he had signaled his support.
The first-term governor said he could have waited until "very late in the game to make [his] endorsement and build up the drama for it." But he said that he'd already made up his mind that if he was not going to be a candidate, he thought Romney was "the best person."