Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the Republican presidential… (Ethan Miller / Getty Images )
After the candidates sliced and diced Herman Cain's "9-9-9" plan, they turned their attention to the man long considered the tentative GOP front-runner -- Mitt Romney -- and his biggest liability -- healthcare reform.
It began with a polite exchange over job creation between Romney and Rick Perry. Perry enthusiastically discussed his newly-released plan to jump-start the American economy by declaring "energy independence."
Romney said that the nation needed a more robust economic plan that included a focus on manufacturing. And Romney said that his included repealing "Obamacare," the healthcare plan President Obama signed into law in March 2010.
It was not Perry but Rick Santorum, the often-overlooked former Pennsylvania senator, who then landed one of the biggest blows on Romney to date on the issue.
"You just don't have credibility, Mitt, for repealing Obamacare," Santorum said, arguing that the Obama administration modeled its plan after what Romney championed as governor of Massachusetts. "What you did was exactly what Barack Obama did."
Romney argued that he never intended for his plan to be adopted on a national level -- a charge his rivals quickly said he had in fact endorsed in his own autobiography, but deleted in a new edition.
Romney also said that his plan differed from Obama's because, "We don't have a government insurance plan. We rely on private insurers." Obama's own plan calls for setting up insurance exchanges in which individuals can purchase private insurance.
"I'm sorry, Rick, that you find so much to dislike in my plan. But I'll tell you, the people of Massachusetts like it by about a 3-to-1 margin," he said. "And we dealt with the challenge that we had, a lot of people that were expecting government to pay their way."
Other candidates joined the pile-on.
"It's not 'Obamacare.' ... But your plan essentially is one more big-government, bureaucratic, high-cost system," Newt Gingrich said.
Even after more than a half-dozen debates, Romney had not faced the kind of scrutiny over his plan that he was confronted with Tuesday.