Did the Republican presidential primary candidates hoping to catch Mitt Romney make sufficient inroads Tuesday to strip the former Massachusetts governor of his front-runner mantle?
To homophonically borrow Herman Cain's oft-repeated phrase from the evening’s Dartmouth College debate: Nein, nein, nein.
Romney parried blows to his signature health care plan and his jobs record in both the public and private sectors. More telling, perhaps, was where he thrust – not at his rivals, but at the man looking increasingly like Romney’s only standing opponent come next year, President Obama.
To be sure, Romney at times found himself on the defensive in the first debate since the field solidified after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin took themselves out of the race. He was put in the uncomfortable position of defending the Wall Street bailouts, an incendiary issue among the conservative base, arguing it was necessary to prevent an economic free-fall. The start of the economic forum looked like a replay of the last three presidential debates: Texas Gov. Rick Perry vs. Romney in a spat, with Perry taking an opening pot-shot at Romney. Perry mocked Romney's status as a longstanding candidate. The Texas governor said he hasn’t introduced a detailed economic plan yet because he hasn’t been running for president nearly as long.
“Mitt’s had six years to be working on a plan,” said Perry. “I’ve been in this for about eight weeks.”
After the initial banter, the debate quickly took on a different look than the ones that had come before. The biggest difference: the prominence of pizza magnate Herman Cain. Surging in the polls, he not only fielded an array of questions but for the first time was forced to defend his record.
The last three debates, Perry’s first three as a presidential candidate, have featured squabble after squabble between him and Romney. Perry and Romney each took the early questions during this debate, but the first went to businessman Cain. Asked how he would help resolve the country’s political dysfunction, Cain touted the hallmark of his campaign, his “9-9-9” plan, to lower corporate and personal income taxes to nine percent and impose a 9 percent national sales tax. It became a frequent touchstone not just for Cain, but for other candidates, who challenged its viability.
Highlights, lowlights, analysis and fact-checking of the debate follow:
Drill, Baby, Drill
Still without a detailed economic plan, Perry instead embraced his state’s big-energy reputation to tout how he would turn around the nation’s dipping fortunes.
Time and time again, the Texas governor steered the questions toward his proposal to reduce regulations girding the country’s energy industry.
“Let me tell you, we are sitting on this absolute treasure trove of energy in this country. And I don't need 9-9-9,” he said, referring to Cain’s economic proposal. “We don't need any plan to pass Congress. We need to get a president of the United States that is committed to passing the types of regulations, pulling the regulations back, freeing this country to go develop the energy industry that we have in this country.”
Criticizing regulation, particularly from the EPA over the energy industry, is standard for Republican presidential candidates, and Perry offered few specific proposals to back up his rhetoric. But his openness about embracing the energy industry is notable given his state’s background. Most Lone Star State politicians running nationwide try to play down their connections to Big Oil.
Perry has promised to unveil a fuller economic agenda later this week in Pittsburgh.
Correcting Romney on How Congress Passed Health Care
Romney confidently asserted that Democrats' health care reform bill passed through budget reconciliation, perpetuating a myth frequently cited by Republicans. Romney said that since the bill passed using reconciliation, he would use the same parliamentary process to repeal the bill if elected president.
“We have to repeal Obamacare, and I will do that on day two, with the reconciliation bill, because as you know, it was passed by reconciliation, 51 votes,” Romney said.
Romney’s assertion about the way the health care law was enacted is wrong. Democrats indeed prepared to use budget reconciliation, which would have required only 51 votes, to pass the health care overhaul bill if necessary. But in the end the bill passed both chambers under regular order, without reconciliation. Democrats did use the reconciliation process to help ease passage of the bill, but the process took place after the measure was already signed into law.
Senate Democrats passed their version of the health care bill in late December 2009, in a party-line 60-40 vote. The House was expected to alter and pass the bill, with the Senate then voting on the altered version. But the January 2009 special election win by Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., to fill a seat vacated by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., foiled those plans, leaving Senate Democrats with just 59 votes, one less than they needed for cloture.
After months of deliberation, the House agreed to pass the version of the bill okayed by the Senate, doing so in a 219 -212 vote on March 22, 2010. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., agreed to pass the bill after assurances from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that the Senate would use reconciliation to make changes to the bill sought by House Democrats. So arguably the bill could not have passed without reconciliation. But the House vote meant the bill had passed Congress. President Obama signed it on March 23, making it the law of the land, without Congress resorting to he reconciliation process. The Senate in the following week did indeed make the agreed-on changes via reconciliation. But the bill would have been taken effect even if the Senate failed to act.
Romney is either confused about the process or, more likely, is pandering to GOP primary voters eager to believe passage of health care required an unfair employment of Senate rules.
Romney Takes a Pass on Autobiography
The final question, querying how candidates empathize with ordinary Americans, elicited the predictable round of autobiographical answers. Santorum grew up in a steel town. Cain was “po’ before I was poor.” Perry was the son of tenant farmers and enlisted in the Air Force. Even Huntsman, son of a billionaire, spoke about helping create a family business. Romney, whose father was an automotive CEO and governor of Michigan, spoke instead in abstractions about his fellow Americans' longing for a brighter future.
Andrea Mitchell’s Husband
Cain’s praise for widely acclaimed former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan inspired 12-term Rep. Ron Paul to decry the never-before-elected pizza executive as "an insider." Paul's take on the former Fed chair: “Alan Greenspan was a disaster.”
Romney just discovered the downside of re-emerging as the race’s front-runner: He becomes a target. Like a firing squad, four candidates – Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, and Perry – took aim at Romney in a segment of the debate where candidates were free to question each other. They grilled Romney on everything from his health care law to his job-creation record.
After Cain criticized Romney’s 161-page economic plan for being too complicated, Gingrich asked him why he would enact a capital gains tax cut only for those making less than $200,000 – a proposal he said was reminiscent of “class warfare” waged by President Obama. As he has on the campaign trail, Romney defended his plan by saying the middle class, not upper-income or poorer Americans, need the most help.
“I’m not worried about rich people, they’re doing just fine,” said Romney, whose net worth has been pegged at north of $190 million.
Huntsman lambasted Romney’s job-creation record while governor – saying Massachusetts ranked 47th in the country – while Perry took issue with his rival’s health care law. The former Bay State chief executive fired back with statistics of his own, saying that while less than 1 percent of his state’s children lack health insurance, Perry’s state has more than 1 million kids without coverage.
“We have the lowest percentage of kids uninsured of any state in America – you have the highest,” said Romney.
It's perhaps the most intense and sustained scrutiny Romney has faced yet on the debate stage this year.
Cain, widely quoted of late for saying “I don’t have the facts to back this up” while alleging a conspiracy behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, scolded Ron Paul for what he said was a misquote. He never called Paul and his followers ignorant, Cain said.. “You’ve got to be careful of the stuff you get off the Internet,” the former pizza executive told Paul.
The Gipper Is Back
Romney dodged a direct question about whether he’d prefer deep spending cuts or tax increases to help bridge the nation’s deficit, pivoting instead to saying that he would rather just grow the economy and pass a Balanced Budget Amendment.
The ex-governor said it is a “terrible idea” to cut defense spending or raise taxes – two solutions to reining in the nation’s burgeoning deficit being discussed by the congressional super committee. Even after being shown a clip of conservative icon Ronald Reagan touting the benefits of revenue increases in exchange for spending cuts, Romney said they were not necessary, alleging that government spending has consumed nearly 40 percent of the country’s economy.
“We cease at some point to be a free economy,” he said.
Shown the same clip, Perry said Reagan lived in a different time – and never saw the promised spending reductions anyway. He said the country needed a Balanced Budget Amendment.
Hunting the Establishment
Huntsman’s best bet when he started was the GOP establishment – the country club and business Republicans who don’t subscribe to tea party principles. His answer on trade war with China showed why. Huntsman preached a long view, arguing for “very, very aggressively” using trade laws, but pushing for cooperation with the country where he served as President Obama's ambassador. “We have no choice, we have to find ground,” Huntsman said, proposing matching up state and local officials across the Pacific to explore export opportunities. “As far as the eye can see in the 21st century, it’s going to be the United States and China on the world stage.” And he got in a dig at the front-runner: “I don’t subscribe to the Don Trump School or the Mitt Romney School of international trade,” he said, yoking the GOP front-runner with the host of the popular TV program Celebrity Apprentice. Interestingly, Huntsman and fellow Chamber-of-Commerce-friendly candidate Romney parted company dramatically on the point. Romney chose much more strident rhetoric: “The Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank,” and “if you’re not willing to stand up to China, you’ll get run over by China.”
Romney plays a dangerous game when he talks about large-scale federal aid for the auto industry. His 2008 New York Times op-ed entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” has entangled the son of a Wolverine State governor, and Romney has subsequently contested the extent to which he would have allowed that to happen. Pressed on his stance on bailouts, Romney argued that the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that assisted Wall Street was justified, but that the auto industry rescue was imprudent. That’s unlikely to help Romney in battleground Michigan, where the Detroit bailout is widely hailed as staving off further economic pain. “Bailouts? Of individual institutions? No one is interested in that, I don’t think,” Romney said of the assistance for the American auto industry.
Perry’s camp circulated his statement from Oct. 1, 2008 depicting his opposition to TARP. “In a free market economy, government should not be in the business of using taxpayer dollars to bail out corporate America. Congress needs to take off its partisan gloves and work together to bring both short and long term stability to the credit markets. They need to stop blaming each other and start thinking about solutions that put the taxpayers of this country first.” But Romney’s campaign sent around a letter showing Perry’s apparent support for the bill on the same day.
Huntsman Cracks Wise
Early on, ex-Utah Gov. Huntsman avoided the kinds of gaffes that have marred some his previous debate performances. He cracked two jokes that had the roundtable of candidates and moderators laughing.
Remarking on Santorum’s contention that Pennsylvania is the “gas capital” of the country, Huntsman shot back that he had the wrong city. “Washington, D.C., is the gas capital of the world,” he said.
Later, he took a shot at Cain’s well-known “9-9-9” plan.
“I think it’s a catchy phrase, in fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza,” he said, referring to Cain’s history as a pizza executive.
A Newt Moment
“Virtually every American has a reason to be angry,” Gingrich began, winding himself up in response to a question about the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Left-wing agitators” comprise one side of the movement, Gingrich said, folks happy to show up next week to protest on any range of topics. Then he pivoted to the federal government, gaining momentum, then proposing jail time for two New England liberals who wrote the financial regulation bill: “If you want to put people in jail, you oughta start with Barney Frank and Chris Dodd,” Gingrich said. Then, thundering now, he moved onto the Federal Reserve Bank, winning the first sustained applause of the evening by going after Fed chair Ben Bernanke for allegedly spending hundreds of billions of dollars in secret.
When last the Republican presidential contenders took the debate stage on Sept. 22, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was among them and Texas Gov. Rick Perry was poised to answer questions about whether his performance could preserve the brittle front-runner mantle that had been hastily bestowed upon him.
A lot has happened to make this debate different from the one that took place 19 days ago—and not just the exclusion of libertarian Johnson, who didn't make the cut for tonight’s 8 p.m. EDT face-off at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Perry has careened downward in the polls, his fall barely cushioned by an impressive $17 million fundraising total for his first quarter of contention. Pizza magnate Herman Cain has come on powerfully, becoming the latest answer for conservatives looking for anybody-but-Mitt Romney. And last week's announcement by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that he won't run settled the field.
In the five days leading up to the debate, three things happened that dramatically changed the campaign's contours. On Friday, a prominent Perry supporter argued that Romney’s Mormon faith was "not Christian," putting the Texas governor on the defensive. Cain solidified his status as the second-best-performing candidate in national—and New Hampshire—polls. And hours before the debate, Christie endorsed Romney, touting him—in a bit of Garden State understatement—as someone who has eyed the Oval Office “for a good long period of time.”
The Perry decline and Cain ascendancy are more than just blips in public opinion; both have long-term implications for the race. As the weekend Values Voters Summit straw poll showed, the affections of socially conservative voters remain elusive and diffuse. That opening has helped spur Romney to reconsider turning his back on the Iowa caucuses, where political veterans say opportunities still exist for him to improve upon his disappointing second-place finish there in 2008. He is planning a trip there later this month.
For Romney, the test at tonight's Washington Post/Bloomberg debate, focused on the economy, will be whether he can weave the disparate threads of the party into a cloak of inevitability while fending off the attacks other candidates are openly pining to launch against him. For Cain, it’s an opportunity to sustain momentum. For Perry, it's an Alamo-moment: Surrounded by headlines about his bad poll numbers and speculation about his fitness as a candidate, can he stand and fight?
The crop of lower-tier candidates are presented with the same challenge each has struggled to overcome in the previous debates: Creating a memorable moment or two to fix them in the minds of voters while demonstrating some measure of seriousness as a candidate.
And, for Gary Johnson, it’s time to fuel up on carbs and watch from afar.
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