Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain was the center of attention at Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry faded into the background.
Cain has surged in the polls as Perry has stumbled and that was reflected in the debate sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post.
Even though Cain was attacked by a few of the other candidates, one person who held his fire throughout the debate was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
During a segment of the debate where candidates were allowed to question each other, Cain asked Romney if he could name all 59 points of his economic plan.
Romney largely held back, merely saying: "I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but often times inadequate" before going into a defense of his economic plan.
However, one person the former governor did criticize was Perry.
Perry and Romney were considered the frontrunners for the nomination and as Cain's star has risen, Perry's has lowered -- a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the Romney camp.
The Texas governor was largely ignored by the other candidates in Tuesday's debate and failed to make much of an impression, sticking to his usual discussion of returning power to the states and returning to a call for development of the energy industry every time he was asked about job creation.
Perry seemed a candidate adrift, sitting slumped and sullen and showing an inability to interject himself into the discussion.
After being criticized for refusing to flesh out his economic plan over the last few weeks, Perry once again failed to deliver a robust proposal, in contrast to most of the other candidates.
Perry did not badly flub any answers in this debate, which focused on economic issues, but that was not enough. With the other candidates no longer seeing him as a major threat, Perry was largely held out of the limelight — and could remain there if he can’t find another way to change his campaign’s narrative.
Cain was the focus of the other candidates' ire, and he showed an ability to mix it up with them.
His only major slips came when he repeatedly refused to name his top economic advisors, which he has refused to do numerous times in the past. He also named former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as the model for his preference for Fed chairman, which prompted an immediate rebuke from Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who called Greenspan a “disaster” to strong cheers from the audience.
Cain offered a strong defense of his 9-9-9 tax plan, which would implement a 9 percent tax on income and corporations along with a 9 percent sales tax.
Asked about concerns his plan would raise prices of goods, Cain dismissed that idea: "You have to start with the biggest tax cut a lot of Americans pay, which is the payroll tax, 15.3 percent. That goes to 9 percent. That is a 6 percentage point difference. And the prices will not go up. So they have got a 6 percentage point difference to apply to the national sales tax piece of that, and in doing so, they have the flexibility to decide on how much they want to spend it on new goods, how much they want to spend it on used goods. Because there is no tax on used goods."
Overall, Cain showed himself up for the challenge of being in the first tier of presidential contenders. He fought off other candidates’ characterizations of his policies and pushed back effectively.
At one point he rebutted Paul’s accusation that he had described as idiots those who wanted an audit of the Federal Reserve. “You’ve got to be careful of the stuff you get off the Internet,” he scolded the Texas lawmaker.
The debate had a very different feel than previous ones: The candidates were seated around a table and asked more in-depth questions than in previous debates, all of them focused on the economy. There were fewer applause and laugh lines and more discussion of policy details, which may mean there will be less fodder for the cable television networks on Wednesday.
Romney may have had the best debate performance of the night, showing a high level of comfort with the issues and handling attacks on his healthcare plan as well as his calls to fight China’s currency manipulation.
“If you’re not willing to stand up to China, you’re going to run over by China,” he said in defending his plan to threaten tariffs if China refused to stop artificially inflating his currency.
He also said that he supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program that bailed out Wall Street, but said the law had been badly implemented. He refused to directly address what he would do differently if faced with a similar situation as president.
The frontrunner faced a higher level of scrutiny than in previous debates and handled it without too much trouble. During a period when the candidates asked each other questions, the first four were directed at Romney, hitting him on his healthcare plan and the complexity and details of his economic plan.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also delivered a strong debate performance, showing himself to be the most pugnacious candidate on stage. He said that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) should be put in jail for the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law and said “virtually every American has a reason to be angry” about the direction of the country before laying into Bernanke for spending millions of dollars “in secret.” That attack got the first sustained applause of the night.
Paul also did well by railing against the Federal Reserve and Greenspan, and scored some points off Cain when he asked him about his opposition to an audit of the Fed.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman got Romney to engage on China but a defense of that country and warnings about a trade war may not be the best political argument to make when polls show many Americans at least partly blame China for America’s economic woes.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) did well in calling for more manufacturing and managed to get in a mention of social issues by calling for a protection of the two-parent family, but did not generate as much attention as in previous debates.
This debate is unlikely to realign the candidate pecking order much. But it was illustrative of a new reality: Cain and Romney are the front-runners, and the other candidates can only attack them and hope for a dynamic shift.