HANOVER, N.H. — Surging Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain vigorously defended his 9-9-9 flat tax plan in a debate Tuesday night, as rivals sought to slow his sudden momentum into the top tier of contenders for the GOP nomination.
“I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard it,” said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman of the proposal from Cain, a former CEO of the Godfathers pizza chain. Turn 9-9-9 upside down, added Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and "the devil's in the details."
Cain, who’s rocketed into first or second place in several national and early-state polls, jumped to defend his proposal to replace the federal income tax with a 9 percent national sales tax, a 9 percent flat personal income tax and a 9 percent flat corporate income tax.
"9-9-9 is bold, and the American people want a bold solution," he said.
The argument over Cain’s tax plan was among the economic issues highlighted in the debate at Dartmouth College, co-sponsored by The Washington Post and the Bloomberg business news service.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the front-runner in recent national polls, has offered a 160-page plan to revive the economy by keeping tax rates low, easing regulatory burdens and repealing the 2010 federal health care law.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who briefly leaped ahead of Romney last month in some national polls before sinking after shaky debate performances, said his detailed proposals are coming soon and will deal with efforts to boost the domestic energy industry.
But, he said, "I'm not going to lay it all out for you tonight. Mitt's had six years."
In a split-screen view, the candidates offered their economic prescriptions at the same time the Senate was taking a test vote on President Barack Obama’s proposed $447 billion plan to boost the economy with tax cuts and spending on public works projects. The Senate failed to muster the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to a vote.
Romney presented himself as a leader who’d break Washington’s gridlock, looking to consolidate his return to the top of polls on the same day he rolled out a coveted endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“I'd be prepared to be a leader,” Romney said in the debate, where he and seven rivals sat around a table talk-show style. “Three years ago we selected a person who'd never had any leadership experience, never worked in the private sector, never had the opportunity to actually bring people together, and he hasn't been able to do so."
Cain presented himself as a fresh alternative who is not bound by government orthodoxy, someone who would do things differently.
"Therein lies the difference between me, the non-politician, and all of the politicians. They want to pass what they think they can get passed rather than what we need, which is a bold solution," he said.
Romney continued to hug middle ground as he discussed the 2008 bailout of the nation's financial institutions, a step that infuriates many conservatives.
"The idea of trying to bail out an institution to protect the shareholders or to protect a certain interest group, that's a terrible idea. And that shouldn't happen," he said. "You do want to make sure that we don't lose the country and we don't lose our financial system and we don't lose American jobs, and that all the banks don't go under."
As a result, Romney said, careful action is needed "to make sure that you preserve our currency and preserve our financial system. But bailouts of individual institutions? No one has interest in that, I don't think."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum objected to the 2008 bailout.
"I opposed it because it violated the principles of our Constitution, the spirit of our Constitution, and because the experience I had that if you open up the door of government involvement in the private sector, some president will and in fact did drive a truck through it and explode the size of the federal government and constrict our freedom," Santorum said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wanted to know more about just what happened.
"One of the reasons I've said that the Congress should insist that every decision document from 2008, 2009 and 2010 at the Fed (Federal Reserve) be released is we are not any better prepared today for a crisis of that scale because the people who were in that crisis and were wrong are still in charge," he said.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul law were frequent targets of criticism from virtually all the candidates Tuesday.
Gingrich said the Fed has secretly spent hundreds of billions of dollars without accountability. “It is corrupt and it is wrong for one man to have that kind of secret power,” he said.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who’s long criticized the Federal Reserve, said he did help manage a partial audit of the central bank that revealed $5 trillion in aid going to overseas banks.
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