Three weeks after the last nationally televised forum, the Republican presidential primary has changed considerably
The start of the GOP presidential economic forum looked like a replay of the last three presidential debates: Texas Gov. Rick Perry v. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a spat, with Perry taking an opening pot-shot at Romney.
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But after the initial banter, the debate quickly took on a different look than its predecessors. The biggest difference came with the involvement of Herman Cain, surging in the polls, who not only fielded an array of questions but for the first time was forced to defend his record. And he wasn't the only candidate on the defensive: Romney 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.
In the opening round, 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."
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 Herman Cain, who has surged in most recent polls. 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 nine percent national sales tax.
More highlights of the debate follow.
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Cain's praise for widely acclaimed former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan inspired 12-term congressman 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 chose Romney as their target in a segment of the debate where candidates were free to question each other. They grilled Romney on everything from his health-care plan to 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 plan. The former Bay State chief executive fired back with statistics of his own, saying while less than one percent of his state's children lack health insurance, Perry's state has more than 1 million kids without coverage.
"We have 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.
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," Huntsman said, yoking Romney with the celebrity real estate mogul. 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 Debating the Gipper
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 and former President 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.