Herman Cain fought to stay in the top tier of the Republican presidential field as Rick Perry tried to recapture the role of Mitt Romney’s chief tormentor in an anger-tinged debate that spotlighted the sharpening contours of the primary race.
Cain, a former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza whose surging poll numbers have put the national spotlight on him, saw his 9-9-9 tax plan attacked by the six other candidates last night in economically battered Las Vegas.
“I like your chutzpah on this, Herman, but I have to tell you, the analysis that I did -- person by person, return by return -- is that middle-income people see higher taxes under your plan,” said Romney, 64, a former Massachusetts governor who is vying with Cain for the front-runner position in the nomination contest.
Perry, the governor of Texas, sought to recapture momentum after several weak debate performances and a drop in the polls by training his fire on Romney during much of the debate. At one point Perry accused Romney of taking a hard rhetorical line on illegal immigration while once having hired undocumented workers.
‘Height of Hypocrisy’
“You hired illegals in your home, and you knew about it for a year,” Perry said to Romney. “And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy.”
Romney rejected the charge, which surfaced during his failed presidential run in 2008, saying a lawn-care company he hired to work on his property had employed the illegal immigrants, not him.
He scolded Perry, saying, “This has been a tough couple of debates for Rick, and I understand that. And so you’re going to get testy.”
As the two grappled to be heard over each other, Romney reached over and put his hand on Perry’s shoulder and lectured him on being presidential.
“You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking,” Romney said. “And I suggest that, if you want to become president of the United States, you got to let both people speak.”
Obama Aide Reaction
Jim Messina, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign manager, highlighted on a conference call today another comment Romney made during the exchange at the debate: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”
That statement, Messina told reporters, shows Romney cares more about advancing his career than what is right and wrong.
“He will say and stand for anything to get elected,” Messina said. “He objected because he thought it would hurt his political career.”
During an appearance in Las Vegas today at the Western Republican Leadership Conference, Perry said he would unveil a jobs plan next week. He also used the occasion to take a verbal jab at Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who came under criticism during his confirmation hearings for having to pay back taxes.
“It starts with scrapping the 3 million words of the current code, starting over with something simple, a flat tax,” Perry said. “I want to make the tax code so simple that even Timothy Geithner can file his taxes on time.”
Perry also made a joke about the Federal Reserve, as he talked about a movie called the “The Italian Job,” where thieves make off with gold.
“That’s enough about the Federal Reserve,” he said.
In a swipe at Romney, who has been criticized for changing his views on issues including abortion rights, Perry said, “I come by my conservatism very authentically, not by convenience.”
That reprised the line he used in introducing himself at last night’s debate, indicating his campaign will be focusing on questioning Romney’s conservative credentials and credibility.
“I am not the candidate of the establishment,” Perry also said. “I’m going to give the American people a huge, big old helping of unbridled truth.”
Speaking after Perry at today’s conference, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia scolded his fellow presidential candidates for their debate performances.
“I’d like to see us get away from the bickering,” he said to applause. “I will say to my fellow candidates, I think that they are better off to be positive, tell us what they will d, and not worry all that much about being negative.”
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told the conference he views the 2012 election as a fight over America’s future.
“Our stimulus plan is to fire Barack Obama and put a Republican in the White House,” he said.
Last night’s debate, moderated by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and held at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, was the eighth such gathering for the Republicans since May 5.
Perry, 61, was watched closely to see if he could muster something more than what he and others have called mediocre debate performances that have helped lower his standing in the Republican race over the past two months to third place from front-runner.
As he has in previous debates, Romney managed to deflect the attacks directed toward him, as he tried to present himself as the most polished candidate and his party’s best bet to beat Obama in the 2012 general election.
Cain, 65, has gained national attention in part because of his proposal to replace the federal tax system with 9 percent business and individual taxes and a 9 percent sales tax.
Perry dismissed Cain’s 9-9-9 tax proposal to spur the economy.
“I’ll bump plans with you, brother,” he said. Cain’s plan, he added, is “not going to fly.”
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas termed Cain’s plan “regressive,” and said it would be “very, very dangerous” for the country.
Cain said his rivals were wrongly attempting to conflate his plan with existing state sales taxes, saying it was like comparing apples and oranges.
Romney quipped: “And I am going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it, because I’m going to pay both taxes.”
Cain dismissed the criticism from his rivals, saying they didn’t comprehend the facts behind his idea and were mischaracterizing it.
“Once again, unfortunately, none of my distinguished colleagues who have attacked me up here tonight understand the plan,” Cain said. “I invite every family to do your own calculations.”
Some of Cain’s rivals cited a study released yesterday that said his plan would raise taxes on those with low and middle incomes, while most wealthy taxpayers would pay less under it.
The 9-9-9 plan would translate into a tax cut for almost 71 percent of Americans with cash income between $200,000 and $500,000, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center in Washington that was built around the assumption that the 2001 and 2003 federal tax cuts will be extended permanently.
About 95 percent of Americans with income between $30,000 and $40,000 would pay more in taxes under Cain’s plan, the analysis said, while about 95 percent of Americans with income exceeding $1 million would receive a tax cut.
Romney continued to face criticism over the Massachusetts health-care law he signed as governor -- a measure that, like the one Obama pushed into law last year, required that everyone purchase medical insurance.
“You just don’t have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare,” said former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. “Your plan was the basis for Obamacare. Your consultants helped Obama craft Obamacare, and to say that you’re going to repeal it, you just -- you have no track record on that that we can trust you that you’re going to do that.”
Romney said he never advocated using his Massachusetts measure as a model for a national overhaul.
“It was something crafted for a state, and I’ve said time and again, Obamacare is bad news,” Romney said. “If I’m president of the United States, I will repeal it.”
Perry and Romney criticized each other’s records as they tried to portray themselves as the most qualified to offer the best alternative to Obama on creating jobs and improving the economy.
“What we need is someone who will draw a bright contrast between themselves and President Obama,” Perry said.
Romney, citing a report by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, said that half the jobs created during Perry’s tenure as governor went to illegal immigrants.
Perry said Romney was “absolutely incorrect” in his assertion, saying that the report he cited had been discredited. The immigration studies group promotes itself as dedicated to promoting a “low immigration, pro-immigrant” vision for America.
Paul used the forum to spotlight his libertarian views, arguing against government involvement in health care and energy subsidies and for an end to U.S. military operations abroad.
“This debt bubble is the thing you better really worry about because it’s imploding on us right now; it’s worldwide,” Paul said. “To cut military spending is a wise thing to do.”
Also participating in the debate was U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Nevada recorded the nation’s highest unemployment rate in August, 13.4 percent, well above the national average of 9.1 percent. It also has the highest rate of foreclosure filings.
Immigration issues surfaced during the debate, in part because Nevada’s population is 27 percent Hispanic, according to census data. It’s an issue the other Republican candidates have tried to use against Perry because of his support in Texas for college tuition breaks for illegal immigrants, something unpopular with conservatives.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. skipped this debate to protest Nevada’s decision to move its caucuses to Jan. 14. New Hampshire officials say that would crowd their primary, which typically follows the Iowa caucuses as the nation’s second nominating contest.