GWEN IFILL: And to the Republican presidential campaign.
Eight candidates gathered around a table at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire last night for the latest in a series of field-defining debates.
NewsHour political editor David Chalian was there, and he joins us now to take us through what happened and why it matters.
It seemed like Herman Cain, the Godfather's Pizza past CEO, suddenly was in the middle of the table. Everybody was taking aim at him.
And let's take a look before I ask you about this at what that looked like last night.
MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: And I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate.
RICK SANTORUM, (R) presidential candidate: How many people here are for a sales tax in New Hampshire? Raise your hand.
There you go, Herman. That's how many votes you'll get in New Hampshire.
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn., presidential candidate: One thing I would say is, when you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the details.
JON HUNTSMAN, (R) presidential candidate: I think it's a catchy phrase. In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it, Herman.
HERMAN CAIN, (R) presidential candidate: Nine-nine-nine will pass, and it is not the price of a pizza, because it has been well-studied and well-developed. It starts with, unlike your proposals, throwing out the current tax code.
Continuing to pivot off the current tax code is not going to boost this economy. This is why we developed 9-9-9, 9 percent corporate business flat tax, 9 percent personal income flat tax, and a 9 percent national sales tax.
And it will pass, Senator, because the American people want it to pass.
GWEN IFILL: Now, David, that's a lot of scrutiny all of a sudden for a guy who wasn't taken very seriously until recently.
DAVID CHALIAN: But in his explanation of this tax overhaul plan, this 9-9-9 plan -- he's been talking about it for months, Gwen -- you see why he has surged.
He's got a winning, charming personality. But think about how popular it is for people inside the Republican primary electorate to Americans more broadly, too, when somebody says, let's toss out the entire tax code. Let's toss out the entire system. It's too complicated. Here's a simple plan.
GWEN IFILL: That's why people liked the flat tax back in the day.
DAVID CHALIAN: Right. So, on style, you can see why his style and explaining this plan has fueled this rise that he has in the polls right now.
On substance, though, it's going to come in for more and more of a critique. You see independent analysts taking a look at this plan. You see even conservative tax analysts taking a look at this and rejecting it because it would, indeed, raise taxes on lower-income people, lower taxes for the wealthy, and sort of do away with that progressive tax system that many Americans, though complicated, have gotten used to.
So when -- the substance is where he's going to have a tougher time going forward, because the scrutiny is only going to increase as he does better in the race.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about substance and policy, because Mitt Romney, who's perceived once again to be the front-runner by every poll, is -- he came under attack again last night for -- it was an old complaint, his old Achilles' heel, which was the health care plan that he passed while he was governor of Massachusetts. Let's take a look.
GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas, presidential candidate: Gov. Romney, your chief economic adviser, Glenn Hubbard, who you know well, he said that Romneycare was Obamacare. And Romneycare has driven the cost of small-business insurance premiums up by 14 percent over the national average in Massachusetts.
So, my question for you would be, how would you respond to his criticism of your signature legislative achievement?
MITT ROMNEY: I'm proud of what we are able to accomplish. I will tell you this, though. We have the lowest number of kids as a percentage uninsured of any state in America. You have the highest. You...
MITT ROMNEY: I'm still -- I'm still speaking.
GOV. RICK PERRY: ... criticism.
MITT ROMNEY: I'm still speaking. I'm still speaking.
We -- we have -- we have less than 1 percent of our kids that are uninsured. You have a million kids uninsured in Texas, a million kids.
GWEN IFILL: Of course, that was Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who was taking on Mitt Romney in this interesting candidate-on-candidate duel they had as part of the debate.
DAVID CHALIAN: What -- you see, what Gov. Romney just did there is political jujitsu.
He took what you called his Achilles' heel, which is right -- the -- quote, unquote -- "Romneycare" plan in Massachusetts is indeed sort of anathema because of its mandate to many in the Republican nominating electorate. He turned the tables, though, and went after Gov. Perry to try to compare his Texas health care record to Gov. Romney's Massachusetts health care record.
And it was probably the only time we saw direct engagement, Gwen, between the former front-runner, Rick Perry, and the current front-runner, Mitt Romney. Mostly, Mitt Romney has -- ignored Rick Perry last night. And Rick Perry tended to fade from the scene a little bit. That's a new dynamic in this race. Many of the last debates, we saw them go head to head on a lot of issues.
This time, Mitt Romney once again tried to stay above the fray.
GWEN IFILL: Here's another issue we expected to hear more about and didn't until last night, this issue of corporate bailouts. We heard the candidates, all of a sudden, engage each other on it. It's a toxic issue which doesn't seem to be going away.
MITT ROMNEY: My experience tells me that we were on the precipice, and we could have had a complete meltdown of our entire financial system, wiping out all the savings of the American people. So action had to be taken.
Was it perfect? No. Was it well-implemented? No, not particularly.
Were there some institutions that should not have been bailed out? Absolutely.
Should they have used the funds to bail out General Motors and Chrysler? No. That was the wrong source for that funding. But this approach of saying, look, we're going to have to preserve our currency and maintain America and our financial system is essential.
HERMAN CAIN: I happen to agree with Gov. Romney. The way it was administered is where it got off-track. They were discretionary in which institutions they were going to save, rather than apply it equitably, which is what most of us thought was going to be done.
GWEN IFILL: One thing we know is true, that TARP is not popular among Republican voters, but a lot of folks on that stage supported it.
DAVID CHALIAN: The four leading contenders supported it, and Rick Santorum made that point.
I think that's going to prove to be a difficult moment for Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, the two leaders in the polls right now, as they go forward. Remember, TARP, the bank bailouts of 2008, that gave birth to the Tea Party movement. That's exactly what the Tea Party started rebelling against. And so when you have your leading contenders in the Republican race defending that action that President Bush and Hank Paulson took, that's going to be a tricky moment for the candidates and the electorate to get on the same page.
GWEN IFILL: Let's get outside of the debate hall. You spent the week up in New Hampshire talking to actual -- actual voters, David.
GWEN IFILL: What are they asking about? What are they saying?
DAVID CHALIAN: It's not too long before they start weighing in with their votes, Gwen. We're only three months away now.
GWEN IFILL: Never too soon.
DAVID CHALIAN: I went to a couple town halls where Mitt Romney was speaking. Obviously, the economy drives a lot of these questions, but there's not a town hall up there or a voter conversation up there that doesn't involve immigration.
Health care does come up, especially for Mitt Romney, in these town halls. And, of course, government spending, that also is a big question. I will say this, Gwen. The dynamic of this race leaving that debate is that Mitt Romney is still very much the front-runner, even though, because of his positions on health care, because of his positions on TARP, he is not in the same place as the electorate right now.
And it is a very odd moment inside the race. He's the front-runner, but he caps out at about 25 percent, 30 percent, and there's no enthusiasm for him. Yet, nobody has totally coalesced the rest of the party to dethrone him from that position.
GWEN IFILL: You know, he got the endorsement of Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, yesterday, seemed to be a signal to conservative voters here: I really am OK.
Why isn't this over for him yet?
DAVID CHALIAN: It's not over because we're now moving into a new phase of the campaign. We have not seen any television ads yet. Rick Perry is about to start spending the $15 million in his bank account to define himself, to define Mitt Romney.
We will see what these outside groups do. We're about to go into a whole new phase of voter communication. I will say this after being on the trail with Mitt Romney this week, though. He is, indeed, a far better, far more disciplined candidate than he was four years ago. And I think that's why we still see him emerging from each one of these debates as, well, Mitt Romney is still the front-runner, nobody's knocked him off yet.
We will see what happens in the new phase.
GWEN IFILL: Do we know when there's going to be a New Hampshire primary? Have they settled on that date yet?
DAVID CHALIAN: They have not yet settled on that date, but we're hoping it's not December.
GWEN IFILL: OK. We will be waiting to see.
David Chalian, thanks again.
DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you.