(Updates with Perry comment in 13th paragraph. For election news, see ELECT <GO>.)
Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Former pizza executive Herman Cain sought to capitalize on his rise in opinion polls by repeatedly promoting his 9-9-9 tax plan at a debate focused on the economy, as other Republican presidential candidates derided it as impractical and criticized each other’s credentials.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is the party’s frontrunner, navigated through repeated attacks from his opponents, including Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is struggling to reignite his candidacy.
The debate tonight showcased disputes among the candidates on a range of economic issues, including Chinese currency, housing loans, job creation and the possibility of future bailouts should the nation face another economic crisis. The candidates were united in their criticism of government, blaming President Barack Obama, the Federal Reserve and Congress for the nation’s economic struggles without noting that Republicans control the U.S. House.
The session was viewed as especially important for Cain, 65, and Perry, 61. Cain’s polling gains have reshaped the primary race and created a new challenge for Perry as he tries to regain ground he has lost to Romney.
The debate, moderated by Charlie Rose at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post, prodded the candidates to detail their plans for turning around an economy with an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent.
Cain proposes to replace the tax system with 9 percent corporate and individual taxes and a 9 percent sales tax. Cain challenged a Bloomberg analysis of his tax plan that found it short in needed revenue. He has not publicly released his own campaign’s analysis and the assumptions used in the plan.
Jon Huntsman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to China and ex- Utah governor, was one of those to mock Cain’s plan.
“I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard it,” Huntsman said, adding that instead something needs to be done that is “doable-doable-doable.”
Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said: “When you take the 9-9-9 plan and turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the details.”
Romney left open the possibility that he would support another rescue package for the financial community though he criticized implementation of the 2008 package backed by both parties.
“I’m not interested in bailing out individual institutions that have wealthy people that want to make sure their shares are worth something,” Romney said. “I am interested in making sure that we preserve our financial system, our currency.”
Romney, 64, and seven Republican rivals are competing to persuade voters they are best-suited to challenge Obama on the economy.
Perry, who is scheduled to give a speech on the economy and energy in Pittsburgh on Oct. 14, said he wanted to open up the nation’s “treasure trove” of energy resources to invigorate the economy. “That’s the real key,” he said.
“The reason we have that many people living in poverty is because we have a president of the United States who’s a job killer,” Perry said. “You have a president that does not understand how to create wealth.”
Perry questioned the health-care plan Romney passed as governor of Massachusetts, saying it raised insurance premiums in the state.
“I’m proud of the fact that we took on a major problem in my state,” Romney said, explaining that his goal was to tackle the problem of uninsured children. That problem, he said, was solved.
“We have less than one percent of kids uninsured in Massachusetts,” he said. “You have a million kids uninsured in Texas.”
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas criticized Cain’s background, saying that as a one-time member of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City he resisted efforts to audit the bank.
“I don’t have a problem with the Federal Reserve being audited,” Cain responded. “It’s simply not my top priority. My top priority is 9-9-9. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia won applause when he called for the removal of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
“Bernanke has in secret spent hundreds of billions of dollars bailing out one group and not bailing out another group,” he said. “It is wrong and it is corrupt for one man to have that kind of power.”
Romney said he would pick a new Fed chairman as president, though he declined to indicate who he might choose.
Cain named Alan Greenspan as his favorite Federal Reserve chairman over the past several decades.
“I don’t believe in ending the Fed,” he said. “I believe we can fix the Fed.”
Paul called Greenspan “a disaster,” saying that although he hoped to end the bank, Paul Volcker was the only chairman who did “a little bit of good.”
Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, said he wants to increase American economic competitiveness by beating out China.
“I want to go to war with China and make America the most attractive place in the world to do business,” he said.
Perry was asked whether he would follow the model of President Ronald Reagan and agree to tax increases as part of spending cuts. “I don’t think he ever saw those reductions,” Perry said, as he called for a balanced budget amendment.
“One of the reasons that I think Americans are so untrustworthy of what’s going on is because they never see a cut in spending,” Perry said. “The fact of the matter is the issue is we need to have a balanced budget amendment to the United States.”
Reagan, renowned by Republicans as a tax-cutter, also increased revenue about a dozen times when confronted with surging deficits. The Treasury Department has estimated those measures would be the equivalent of $300 billion annually today.
Hours before the debate Romney won the endorsement of Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who came to the state to personally deliver his support.
Christie’s announcement followed his decision last week not to enter the race, dashing the hopes of some Republican leaders and donors seeking an alternative to Romney and others running for the party’s nomination.
The gathering marked the seventh formal debate for the Republican candidates since May 5. Their next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 18 in Las Vegas.
Romney, who has become a more frequent target for his rivals, enjoys something of a home-field advantage for the debate, given that he owns property in New Hampshire and his service as governor of neighboring Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. He also unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
The dynamics of this year’s contest have shifted over the last month as Perry fell from frontrunner status following stumbles at previous debates, including his comment at a Sept. 22 face-off that those who oppose an in-state tuition program for the children of undocumented immigrants that he favored as Texas’ governor don’t “have a heart.” He has since retreated from that phrasing, while standing by the program.
A pre-debate poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents by Bloomberg News and The Washington Post, the debate sponsors, found that Cain, a former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza, has gained ground.
Romney was picked by 24 percent of Republicans as the person they want to win the nomination, followed by Cain at 16 percent and Perry at 13 percent.
Rounding out the field, 6 percent backed Paul, 4 percent were for Bachmann, 3 percent supported Gingrich, 1 percent picked Santorum and less than 1 percent backed Huntsman.
The poll surveyed 391 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents with a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points for that group.
Tonight’s debate was the first time the candidates have debated sitting down. They sat at an oval table based on poll results, which means Romney and Cain are next to each other. They also were allowed to ask questions of each other.
Christie, appearing today with Romney at a news conference in Lebanon, New Hampshire, praised the former Massachusetts governor as “an executive who has used executive power,” a reference to Romney’s business experience.
“This is not someone who just decided to run for president off the back of an envelope,” Christie said of Romney. “This is somebody who has thought and listened and planned for a good long period of time about what you would do if he was given the honor of being president of the United States.”
He also said Romney, the onetime chief executive of the investment firm Bain Capital LLC, has “laid out the most detailed economic plan of anybody in the race.”
Romney on Sept. 6 released a 59-point plan that included proposals to cut U.S. corporate taxes, reduce federal regulations and pursue sanctions against China for currency manipulation.
During the debate, Romney said his economic plan calls for cutting capital gains tax rates for middle-class taxpayers because they are the people “who are hurting the most.”
Christie told reporters in New Jersey that he was attracted by Romney’s pledge that on his first day to as president he would issue all U.S. states automatic waivers from implementing Obama’s health-care overhaul.
Running Mate Question
Christie, 49, said he doesn’t anticipate being asked to join a Romney ticket as a vice presidential candidate. He didn’t say no when asked twice whether he would accept the position if offered.
The New Jersey governor said he’s ready to travel the U.S. in support of Romney, and has urged his backers and party leaders in New Jersey and other states to follow his lead.
“I have no question in my mind that Governor Romney is our party’s and our country’s best opportunity to defeat President Obama,” he said.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, discounted the significance of Christie’s endorsement.
“We’re talking about a governor with a failed record on jobs endorsing a former governor with a failed record on jobs,” she told reporters before the debate. “I would probably look for someone with a little more track record for success.”
--With assistance from Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Hanover and Terrence Dopp in Trenton. Editors: Don Frederick, Mark Silva
To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Hanover at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Lerer in Hanover at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org