(Updates with comments from Christie beginning in seventh paragraph. For election news, see ELECT <GO>.)
Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney, working to solidify his status as frontrunner in the Republican presidential race, was endorsed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie today in New Hampshire, hours before the White House contenders are to debate over the economy in the home of the nation’s first primary.
Christie’s endorsement follows his announcement last week that he wouldn’t mount his own presidential bid, dashing the hopes of some Republican leaders and donors who had sought an alternative to Romney and the party’s other candidates.
Christie, appearing 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.
The endorsement was “an easy decision for me,” Christie said.
Romney, embarking on his second presidential run, called Christie “an American hero” and “a real hero in Republican circles.”
Romney and his Republican rivals are competing to persuade voters they are best-suited to challenge President Barack Obama on the economy. The issue is the sole focus of tonight’s debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, co-sponsored by Bloomberg News and The Washington Post, which will be broadcast on Bloomberg Television, Bloomberg Radio, WBIN-TV in New Hampshire and on Bloomberg.com and WashingtonPost.com. It starts at 8 p.m. local time.
“This is not someone who just decided to run for president off the back of an envelope,” Christie said in backing 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.
At his news conference with Christie today, Romney said, “I don’t want people to cheat, and China’s been cheating.”
Rick Perry’s presidential campaign released a statement saying the Texas governor “has the utmost respect for Governor Christie and looks forward to his help unseating President Obama next year. Until then, Governor Perry will continue traveling the country talking about job creation and getting America working again.”
Christie’s endorsement came as an ascendant Herman Cain is working to burnish his fiscal credentials and replace Perry as the prime threat to Romney. The debate is expected to test the staying power of Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza who is the latest social conservative to shoot to prominence following short-lived surges by Perry and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, both of whom have seen their popularity plummet.
A pre-debate poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents by the debate co-sponsors found that Cain has pulled almost even with Romney in appeal as an economic leader.
Twenty-two percent of the party’s supporters picked Romney, a former venture capitalist, 20 percent Cain and 12 percent Perry as the candidates who could do the most to improve the economy.
“The mega-question is, will Rick Perry screw up again?” said John J. Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. “Everyone knows that Romney handles himself well in these debates. He’s smooth if you like him, slick if you don’t. People want to know whether Perry can reassure some of the people who were disappointed by his stumbles last time.”
Many eyes will be on Cain as well, said Pitney, a former Republican Party aide, “to see if he can stand up to the tough questions and the tight scrutiny” he is likely to draw as a newcomer to the top tier of candidates.
Asked about Cain’s new prominence during an appearance today on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” White House senior adviser David Plouffe declined to comment directly.
“We’re still in the first or second inning here,” he said. “This is going to have a lot of twists and turns between now and early January.”
He said he expects that during tonight’s debate, the Republicans will be “subscribing to the same economic policy that led to the Great Recession, and that they want to let Wall Street write their own rules” benefiting the wealthy and big corporations.
Some of the candidates fanned out across the autumn-hued highways of New Hampshire yesterday to court the state’s independent-minded residents. Each seeks to persuade voters who hold early sway in the party’s nominating contest that he or she is best-positioned to address the issue dominating the campaign: jobs and reinvigorating the economy.
Romney, at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Milford, said yesterday Obama’s stewardship has created a “‘Where’s Waldo’ economy,” referring to the children’s books in which the challenge is to hunt for a small, hard-to-find man on a crowded page. In Romney’s analogy, the jobs are Waldo.
Romney also accused Obama of fostering “class warfare” that he said demonized groups of people unfairly. “I’ve been really disappointed -- and, in some respects, a little frightened -- by the president’s rhetoric -- this class warfare, trying to find someone to blame,” he said.
Earlier, commenting on the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in Manhattan’s financial district and have spread to cities across the country, Romney said, “Dividing our nation at a time of crisis is the wrong way to go. All the streets are connected. Wall Street’s connected to Main Street, and so finding a scapegoat, finding someone to blame, in my opinion, isn’t the right way to go.”
Students and faculty at Dartmouth plan a rally demonstrating support for the Occupy Wall Street protesters this afternoon.
For U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, whose libertarian positions have struck a chord with some Republicans and independent voters, the debate will offer an opportunity to showcase his criticism of the Federal Reserve and the fiscal and monetary policies that he argues are responsible for the nation’s economic troubles.
“You can’t spend your way out of these problems,” he told the Fox Business Network in an interview yesterday. “You can’t inflate your way out of it. The average person on the street figured this out.”
Asked yesterday by an undecided voter at a town hall meeting in Hopkinton whether he or Cain has better private- sector experience, Romney said Cain “is a terrific guy, and give him a good look. Both Herman and I spent our careers in the private sector, so I think that’s one of the reasons both of us are doing pretty well.”
Romney also pointed out his experience as an elected official, a credential Cain lacks. “You don’t want to necessarily learn that for the first time as president of the United States,” he said.
Perry, absent from public view as tries to bounce back from weak debate performances and criticism of his position on illegal immigration, released a campaign video criticizing Romney for his support of a Massachusetts health-care law that bears similarities to the national measure Obama enacted.
The video portrays Romney as a mirror image of Obama, juxtaposing pictures of the president signing the law its opponents derisively call Obamacare with images of Romney signing the Massachusetts measure. Both laws require that all residents obtain health insurance.
It includes TV clips of Romney defending his legislation and concludes with a phrase he uttered during the last debate: “There are a lot of reasons not to elect me.” That is followed by a quote from Obama: “He’s right.”
Christie today scoffed at the effort to link the two laws, saying, “Any attempt to try to compare what happened in Massachusetts and what the president has done to the United States of America with his plan is completely intellectually dishonest.”
Perry, who shot to the front of the Republican pack following his Aug. 13 entrance into the race, has fallen from favor, according to public polls, largely because of his decision as governor to let children of illegal immigrants attend college at discounted tuition rates. He announced last week that he raised more than $17 million in scarcely more than a month, an indication that he could have staying power in the Republican contest.
Cain stayed largely out of the public eye preparing for his first debate performance since winning a nonbinding straw poll in Florida on Sept. 24, bringing him greater name recognition, a boost in public polls and new attention for his “9-9-9” tax plan. It would replace the current tax system with 9 percent corporate and individual taxes and a 9 percent sales tax.
Recent polls reveal a bump for Cain, even as they underscore Romney’s status as party favorite. The Bloomberg-Post national poll of 1,000 people conducted Oct. 6-9 showed Romney maintaining his overall advantage as the candidate Republican supporters most want to see as the nominee, at 24 percent, with Cain second at 16 percent.
New Hampshire Poll
Romney also leads among likely voters in New Hampshire, according to a poll jointly sponsored by the Institute of Politics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. That poll found that Romney is backed by 38 percent of likely New Hampshire primary voters, followed by Cain with 20 percent and Paul with 13 percent. The other candidates got support of 5 percent or less.
“There’s nobody who’s been able to solidify a No. 2 slot,” said Andrew Smith, a University of New Hampshire polling expert and political scientist whose latest survey found similar results. “Over the last couple of years, and certainly recent months, we’ve seen multiple candidates bump up to No. 2, but nobody’s been able to stay there for more than one or two polls. The race is still largely Romney’s to lose.”
Bachmann, who threatened Romney with an early burst of momentum that was squelched by Perry, said she is looking for a chance to distinguish herself at the debate.
‘Plenty of Questions’
“Hopefully, we’ll get plenty of questions and be able to stand out,” she told reporters after a town hall meeting in Henniker. While polls have shown a drop in her popularity, Bachmann said she has the money to stay in the race. “We do have the resources to be viable,” she said.
Jon Huntsman Jr., who is staking his campaign on a strong finish in New Hampshire and has fared poorly in recent polls in the state, said he would use the debate to highlight the ways in which his experience as a former businessman, governor of Utah and diplomat have shaped his economic perspective.
“We’re pointing people to the facts of my economic background,” Huntsman told reporters after visiting a senior center in Hanover today. “What I did in the private sector, what I did as governor of a state, what I’ve learned by living overseas four times and serving three times as an ambassador to my country -- and that is understanding better than anybody on that stage America’s role in the world in the 21st Century.”
Huntsman served until earlier this year as Obama’s ambassador to China.
In an interview today on the NPR radio program “On Point,” Huntsman was asked about the pastor who introduced Perry on Oct. 7 at a Values Voter Summit in Washington and later told reporters that Romney’s Mormon faith is a “cult.”
The Baptist minister, the Rev. Robert Jeffress of Dallas, is “a moron,” said Huntsman, also a Mormon.
Romney at his news conference today called upon Perry “to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor.”
Perry’s campaign previously has issued a statement saying the governor “does not believe Mormonism is a cult.”
--With assistance from Mark Silva, Lisa Lerer and John McCormick in Hanover, New Hampshire, and Roger Runningen in Washington. Editors: Robin Meszoly, Don Frederick.
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