Faced with making a giant leap from novelty act to political statesman -- in Las Vegas, of all places -- surging Republican candidate Herman Cain predictably fell short in Tuesday's debate.
The corporate executive who has charmed his way to the top of the polls with a broad smile and a penchant for fiery oratory failed to defend his "9-9-9" tax plan amid a barrage of attacks from his Republican presidential rivals. The best he could do was to dismiss criticisms as "simply not true,'' accuse critics of "talking apples and oranges,'' and direct voters to an "analysis performed by fiscal associates'' on his campaign website.
"I'm not afraid to try to sell it to the American people,'' said the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, who clearly understands the power of repetition in advertising but doesn't want consumers to bother with the fine print. Asked in a survey by The Washington Post and Pew Research Center to come up with a single word to describe him, most people said "9-9-9,'' referring to his plan to replace the current federal tax code with a 9 percent income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax and a 9 percent national sales tax.
(PICTURES: The GOP Debate in Las Vegas)
Cain also refused to clarify his conflicting remarks about whether he was joking when he called for an electrified border fence.
It was classic Cain, playing the card of a political outsider whose ideas are beyond reproach simply because he doesn't run in the usual circles.
Cain wasn't the only candidate who took on a familiar role after running a gauntlet of five nationally televised debates in roughly six weeks. It goes like this: Rick Perry loses focus; Mitt Romney lacerates anyone who gets in his way;and Michele Bachmann says something of questionable accuracy.
And this: Ron Paul renounces a pillar of the U.S. government; Rick Santorum lectures about the importance of family; and Newt Gingrich lectures about everything else.
The only thing missing that close watchers of the race have come to expect was an awkward crack by Jon Huntsman, who boycotted the debate in Nevada because of the state's interference with the presidential primary calendar.
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At the heart of the debate, sponsored by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference, was the increasingly personal and nasty tussling between Romney and Perry over their economic records, immigration policies, and conservative credentials. Despite Perry's freefall and Cain's surge in the polls, the Republican contest remains a two-man race. No one besides Perry and Romney has the credibility, money, or organization to muster a national campaign.
Perry, who has faced relentless attacks from Romney for supporting in-state tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants, tried a new line of attack on Tuesday. Picking at a blemish on Romney's record that dogged him in the 2008 campaign, Perry accused him of the "height of hypocrisy'' because his Massachusetts home used to be tended by a landscaping company that employed illegal immigrants. Television viewers could hear the audience booing at Perry.
Perry also seemed stuck on the low road when offered the chance to address inflammatory remarks by a supporter in Texas, Robert Jeffress, a minister who said Romney is "not a Christian'' and belongs to a "cult.'' Romney, a Mormon, delivered a brief testimonial to America's tradition of freedom of religion. Perry said: "I don't agree with [Jeffress]. I can't apologize any more than that."
Sure he could. But the swaggering Texas governor who has never lost an election is not accustomed to admitting mistakes. Earlier, he brushed off moderator Anderson Cooper's protest that he was not answering a question about the 14th Amendment by saying, "You get to ask the questions. I get to answer as I want to." True, but the polls suggest the folly of his approach.
Baiting Perry, the ever-confident Romney teased, "This has been a couple of rough debates for Rick, and I understand that you're going to get testy."
(PICTURES: The spouses of the 2012 GOP candidates)
Perry did seem more relaxed than in previous debates -- he started off strong, introducing himself as "an authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience," in a swipe at Romney — but perhaps got a little too relaxed when he turned to Cain and tried to deliver a lighthearted criticism of his economic plan. "I love you, brother, but let me tell you something," Perry said. "You don't have to have a big analysis to figure this out…. I'll bump plans with you, brother, and we'll see who has the best idea about getting this country working again."
Cain seems to be taking on the role of the beloved, wise uncle in the family, and his opponents sought to appear in his good graces. Gingrich insisted he "deserves a lot of credit" for his economic plan, drawing applause from the audience. Santorum said, "Herman always says you got to find the right problem."
Romney once again emerged mostly unscathed from the debate. Santorum struck the first and perhaps toughest blow after the former Massachusetts governor declared he would repeal President Obama's health care law. "You don't have credibility, Mitt, when it comes to repealing Obamacare," Santorum said, accusing him of virtually ushering in the program with a similar law in Massachusetts.
At times, the Republican field stepped out of the political mainstream, setting back the party's efforts to win over the moderate, independent voters who will decide whether Obama serves a second term. Perry proposed defunding the United Nations. Paul declared that that the U.S. should do away with foreign aid altogether. Bachmann lobbed this grenade: that Obama "really has a problem with illegal immigration" because he has undocumented relatives living in the U.S.
Winner: CNN for hosting the liveliest debate so far. As Bachmann quipped: "This is one night when I hope what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas."
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