There was one clear winner from Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, based on the metrics of name recognition alone: businessman Herman Cain's "9-9-9 Plan." Cain, the latest Republican presidential candidate to surge to the top of the polls, found himself in the hot seat Tuesday night at a debate in New Hampshire centered on the economy.
Nearly all the candidates at the debate table had something to say about Cain's plan to replace the tax code with three, flat nine-percent federal taxes on consumption, business and income. Cain, once delegated to the remote wings of the debate stage, has of late, enjoyed a surge in the polls since he won the straw poll in Orlando, Fla., last month, and at the first debate since he joined former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the top tier, Cain and his policy proposals took up more of the debate's time than the ideas floated by any other candidate. Of course, this isn't to say that any of them praised Cain's idea. Everyone who had an opportunity took shots at the plan.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney suggested that the 9-9-9 scheme would be "inadequate" to solve the nation's problems. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, sharply questioned Cain's economic credentials. Bachmann said the plan would do little to create jobs and would simply offer the government a new way to collect tax revenue. Cain defended his plan as a fresh solution. "Therein lies the difference between me, the non-politician, and all of the politicians," he said. "They want to pass what they think they can get passed rather than what we need, which is a bold solution." Texas Rep. Ron Paul also attacked Cain for naming former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as the kind of person he would appoint to the Fed if elected.
But none of his detractors were able to stop Cain from repeating the line all night. Perhaps not anticipating that the candidates would spend their own time discussing Cain's proposal, the moderators ran a pre-arranged clip of Cain touting it a few weeks ago and asked all the candidates to comment on it. Again. So they did, and the "9-9-9 Plan" got a fresh dose of airtime. It was as if every time the candidates mentioned those words--"9-9-9"--Cain got a little more powerful.
Separately, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney defended the 2008 bailout of Wall Street banks, saying it was essential to preserving the nation's currency and financial system from collapse. Asked about his own 59-point plan, Romney said that while simplicity like the 9-9-9 plan are often helpful, they're also frequently incomplete. He noted that he wants to target a middle-class tax cut because the rich will survive and the poor have a safety net. As for his own economic plan, Perry said he is introducing it shortly, but the government must open the way for more production of domestic energy.
Hours before the candidates met, Romney picked up New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's endorsement, which he hopes will help cement his support among the GOP establishment and nurture an image that he's the party's inevitable nominee. But at least for tonight, everyone's talking about the 9-9-9 plan, and Cain couldn't have asked for a better gift from his opponents.