Romney’s Strong Debate Performance Keeps Him On Course

BY David Chalian  October 12, 2011 at 8:34 AM EDT


Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney reacts during the Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. on Oct. 11, 2011. Photo by Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

The Morning Line

HANOVER, N.H. – You can put another GOP debate, with what has become a common story line to emerge from it, in the history books.

Mitt Romney delivered a smooth, confident, and commanding performance in a debate with seven of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination at Dartmouth College Tuesday night. The former Massachusetts governor defended his health care plan, attempted to discredit Herman Cain’s catchy “9-9-9″ tax plan, and demonstrated his mastery of the debate’s single issue – the economy.

Romney’s defense of his support for the 2008 TARP bailout program, a government intrusion that was anathema for many conservative activists in the Republican nominating electorate, may have been his most difficult moments of the debate, but he emerged unscathed.

The debate sponsors, The Washington Post, Bloomberg News, and WBIN-TV incorporated a segment of candidate-to-candidate questions, and Romney fielded more than half of them from his opponents.

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz notes how adeptly Romney handled them:

“Cain tried to turn his simple tax plan into an asset by asking Romney whether he could name all 59 points in the former governor’s recently released economic program. Romney parried by saying that simple answers “are often inadequate.” He went on to say that his economic plan is far more comprehensive than what Cain is offering.

Gingrich wondered why Romney had a proposal to lower the capital gains tax only on those Americans with incomes below $200,000, saying his threshold was even lower than President Obama has generally set. Romney turned it into a plea for helping the middle class.

I’m not worried about rich people,’ he said, adding that the poor have a social safety net. The middle class, he said, have suffered most and deserve some help.

Huntsman tried to hit Romney on his record of job creation as governor of Massachusetts but flubbed an opportunity with a ham-handed reference to weekend criticism of Romney’s Mormon religion that fell flat.

When Perry tried on health care, Romney turned it back on him. Massachusetts, he said, now has just 1 percent of children without health insurance. ‘You have a million kids uninsured in Texas,’ he added. ‘A million kids. Under President Bush, the percentage uninsured went down. Under your leadership, it’s gone up.’”

The other major dynamic for the evening was former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain’s welcome to center stage.

Cain’s surge in national and key early nominating state polls earned him a spot at the center of the table Tuesday night – and he came in for a lot of questioning from the moderators and his fellow candidates alike.

Cain attempted to bring many of his answers back to selling the virtues of his “9-9-9″ tax plan, which would toss out the current tax system and implement a 9 percent flat income tax for everyone, a 9 percent corporate tax rate, and a 9 percent national sales tax.

The Cain poll surge is likely to invite more significant scrutiny from the press and from his rivals than he has seen to date. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s asked the New Hampshire audience (a state with no broad sales tax) for a show of hands of how many people would like to see a 9 percent sales tax. Demonstrating no support for that in this critical primary state was just the beginning.

If Cain is to be successful in his quest for the GOP nomination, he is likely going to have to broaden out his message beyond his tax plan.

In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America” Wednesday morning, he refused to get specific on foreign policy saying he has philosophy on foreign affairs is “peace through strength and clarity.”

The former front-runner in the race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, nearly disappeared on the debate stage Tuesday night. Instead of using the debate as an opportunity to show a turnaround from his previously panned performances, he decided to hang back and diminish the risk of doing his candidacy any further harm.

More on Perry’s approach from Politico’s Jonathan Martin:

“After suffering through consecutive brutal debates, Perry and his team clearly made a decision to use this forum as a pivot point, rather than an opportunity, in which he would talk up his coming economic roll-out and not seek to tear into Romney or otherwise repair the damage from his past performances.

The Texas governor was absent from much of evening’s back-and-forth, rarely interjecting as some of his competitors did freely …

… Instead of attempting a debate knock-out, Perry is now aiming to reverse his steep slide in the polls with a series of policy speeches. The first, scheduled for Pittsburgh on Friday, will focus on energy and initiatives a president can push through without the approval of Congress. Then, in two weeks, Perry will deliver an address in South Carolina offering a broader growth agenda, said campaign officials.”

The candidates were overall in large agreement with each other that there is too much federal government regulation in place strangling the economy, President Obama’s proposed tax increases are job creation prohibitors, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has created bad central banking policy for the economy.

On that last point, Rep. Ron Paul was smiling at how his decades long anti-Fed rhetoric seems to have become the Republican Party’s accepted approach to the central bank during the course of this 2011-2012 nomination fight.

BACK TO SQUARE ONE

President Obama’s $447 billion jobs proposal failed to advance in the Senate Tuesday, blocked by a united Republican conference plus two moderate Democrats. The action signaled the likely end of any move by Congress to pass a comprehensive economic initiative, and marked the start of an effort by Democratic leaders to break the proposal up into individual pieces that stand a better chance of winning bipartisan support.

The final tally in the Senate was 50-49, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switching his vote to “nay” in order to preserve the ability to bring the bill back up for consideration at a later point without having to again file cloture.

“Tonight’s vote is by no means the end of the fight,” President Obama said in a statement responding to the vote.

The president put lawmakers on notice that despite the setback, he would continue to push them to act on the specific measures contained in his plan, including the payroll tax cut and infrastructure spending.

“With each vote, Members of Congress can either explain to their constituents why they’re against common-sense, bipartisan proposals to create jobs, or they can listen to the overwhelming majority of American people who are crying out for action,” Mr. Obama added.

The two Democrats who voted against proceeding to formal debate on the measure were Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., both of whom face tough re-election contests in 2012.

Other Democrats, meanwhile, voted to move forward, but indicated they would be unable to support the overall package in its current form. They included Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Jim Webb, D-Va., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has refused to allow the president’s bill to come up for a vote in the GOP-controlled chamber, but suggested certain pieces of the proposal could draw Republican votes.

The shift to a piecemeal approach could prove to be a tougher sell politically for those members who continue to oppose the individual pieces brought up for consideration, given that public opinion polls show widespread support for many of the measures included in the president’s jobs package.

HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?

As Congress figures out what to do about jobs, the number of Americans who approve of the job Congress is doing has fallen to an all-time low of 13 percent.

The rating matches a record set twice before — in August 2011 and December 2010 — according to a monthly poll conducted by Gallup.

The low opinion knows no political bounds, as Republicans’ and Democrats’ approval stands at 14 percent, while just 13 percent of independents give the Congress a thumbs up.

Congress is running out of time in 2011 to boost its standing or risk breaking the record the lowest annual average approval rating since Gallup began tracking the number in 1974: 18 percent in 1992.

ON THE TRAIL

All events listed in Eastern Time.

  • President Obama delivers remarks at a White House Forum on American Latino Heritage at the Department of Interior in Washington at 11:35 a.m. At 2:40 p.m. he holds a closed-door meeting at the White House with the National Association of Evangelicals Executive Committee. He also meets with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in the Oval Office at 4:30 p.m.

  • Rick Santorum holds three campaign events in New Hampshire, beginning with a business roundtable in Concord at 8 a.m. He addresses a Family Research Council rally in Concord at 9:15 a.m. and then speaks to the New Hampshire State Legislature in Concord at 10:30 a.m.

  • New Gingrich addresses the New Hampshire State Legislature at 10:45 a.m., and holds a Manchester meet & greet at 12 p.m.

  • Michele Bachmann addresses the New Hampshire State Legislature at 11:30 a.m.

  • Rick Perry attends a forum in Indianapolis at 2 p.m.

  • Jon Huntsman holds a pair of New Hampshire town halls, first in Keene at 4 p.m., then in Marlow at 6 p.m.

All future campaign events can be found on our Political Calendar.

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