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Goal of GOP rivals at debate: Derail the Cain train

October 18, 2011|By James Oliphant
(Eric Thayer/Reuters )

The GOP debate Tuesday is in Las Vegas, but Herman Cain is likely going to need to do more than have the slot machine come up 9-9-9.

His tax plan worked to his advantage the last time the Republican contenders gathered to argue about the issues—a whole week ago—because that debate was centered on the economy. The focus allowed Cain to promote his revamp of the tax code almost to the exclusion of all else.

Cain’s rise in the polls has been so linked to 9-9-9 that the former pizza executive’s lack of experience in the foreign policy arena or with an issue such as immigration has largely gone without notice.

It’s a luxury he likely won’t be afforded Tuesday evening, as the other GOP candidates are likely to train their fire on the the man some polls see as the front-runner.

Already there have been missteps. Cain prompted a small outcry last weekend when he suggested building an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. He later claimed he was joking. And then Monday in Arizona he said he hadn’t been joking after all.

During his appearance on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Cain appeared unsteady and uncomfortable talking about foreign policy on topics ranging from whether Iran posed a threat, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he was unfamiliar with the neoconservative philosophy that drove so much of the approach of the George W. Bush administration and said he opposed a troop drawdown in Iraq.

Asked about his approach to Afghanistan, Cain demurred.

“In Afghanistan, victory is, can we leave Afghanistan in a situation where they can defend themselves? I don’t know if that’s possible right now because, here again, what do the commanders on the ground say? What does the intelligence community say? A lot of analysis needs to into determining whether or not there is a definition of victory in Afghanistan,” he said.

Earlier this month in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Cain seemed to make light of an intensive focus on foreign policy, saying he was waiting for the media to ask him “gotcha” questions such as “who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.”

The debate a week ago in New Hampshire was carried live only on Bloomberg TV, a business news channel, while the Vegas debate on CNN will expose Cain to a wider audience. Given his surge in the polls, it’s highly possible that more voters will be paying attention to what he says than ever have before.

And while the 9-9-9 plan has helped propel Cain’s surge, it, too, is falling under increasing scrutiny as a potential burden on the middle-class. The plan would eliminate tax breaks and set individual and corporate tax rates at 9%  while instituting a national sales tax of 9%.

A report Tuesday by a liberal think tank devoted to tax policy said that under Cain’s plan, the poorest 60% of taxpayers would pay an extra $2,000 a year. The richest 1% in the nation would see a $210,000 break, the Citizens for Tax Justice said.

The plan is also likely to be a tough sell in states such as Nevada, which has a state sales tax of more than 6%. Cain’s plan would slap a federal tax on top of it for goods and services, including food and medicine.

It will come as a surprise Tuesday evening if one of Cain’s rivals for the GOP nomination fails to point that out within minutes after the topic is broached.

Cain may also get nicked by candidates such as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum over his stance on gay marriage (Cain has said he isn't in favor of a constitutional amendment outlawing it, but would leave it to the states), and by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas over his past affiliation with the Federal Reserve in Kansas City, Mo.

james.oliphant@latimes.com

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