Although the race for the Republican presidential nomination has been intensifying in recent weeks, Tuesday night’s GOP debate in Hanover, N.H., was a relatively tame affair.
In last night’s 90-minute debate at Dartmouth College, the current GOP presidential contenders engaged in a roundtable discussion of the American economy, challenging each other and highlighting the divisions between the candidates’ economic plans.
Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, freshly bolstered by a key endorsement from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, emerged as the clear front-runner in the debates as he continued to emphasize his private sector background and leadership qualities as factors making him the best candidate to defeat President Obama next year. Romney defended Massachusetts’ health care law while maintaining that he would repeal Obamacare if elected. Asked what decision he would make if forced to choose between cutting defense spending or raising taxes, he chose neither.
“I think it’s a terrible idea to cut defense,” he said. “I think it’s a terrible idea to raise taxes.”
When questioned about the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the subject of much criticism from the Republican Party, Romney defended it.
“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,” he said. “Was it perfect? No. Was it well implemented? No, not particularly.”
The major target of the evening, however, was undoubtedly former pizza executive Herman Cain’s “9-9-9″ tax plan – composed of a 9 percent flat tax on personal income, a 9 percent corporate flat tax and 9 percent national sales tax. The “9-9-9” plan was an oft-repeated phrase in last night’s debates, with former Utah governor Jon Huntsman quipping that the phrase sounded as if it referred to the price of a pizza.
“I would have to say the 9-9-9 plan isn’t a jobs plan, it is a tax plan,” said Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. “The last thing you would do is give Congress another pipeline of a revenue stream. And this gives Congress a pipeline in a sales tax.”
“How many people here are for a sales tax in New Hampshire?” asked Rick Santorum to the audience. “There you go, Herman. That’s how many votes you’ll get in New Hampshire.”
Cain has been surging in polls in recent weeks as Texas governor Rick Perry’s debate performance has faltered. Perry was considerably quiet during last night’s debate, and even Romney pulled away from engaging him in many of the terse arguments that have sprung up between the two during past debates. Each candidate was given the opportunity to direct a question at any of the other candidates; Romney chose Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Perry emphasized an energy independence plan based on pulling back governmental regulations on energy companies, and only began to spar with Romney during the final half-hour of the debate over Massachusetts’ health care law. Perry declined to delve into his full economic plan during the debate, saying, “Mitt’s had six years to be working on a plan. I’ve been in this about eight weeks.”
By most accounts, last night’s discussion was a much more polite exchange than previous debates, perhaps owing partly to the roundtable format which had candidates facing each other directly and in close proximity. But as the 2012 campaign season pushes ahead, the image of a two-man race between Romney and the struggling Perry, or even between Romney and the increasingly popular Cain, is fading – in the bid to secure the Republican nomination, the Massachusetts governor has clearly emerged ahead of the pack.