HANOVER, N.H. - Eight Republican presidential hopefuls debated the issue voters care most about - the economy - as they lightly squabbled last night over whose approach on Chinese trade policy, health care, and tax reform would best get the country’s economy growing again.
Mitt Romney, who has proven to be a consistent presence at the top of the polls, did little to damage the momentum his campaign has gotten in recent weeks, bolstered yesterday with the prized endorsement of New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie.
With the Republican field now almost certainly set, the race has become largely a test for who will emerge as Romney’s chief rival, and the candidates sought last night to distinguish themselves from the former Massachusetts governor. When they got a chance to question one another, most chose to lob their queries at Romney, allowing him to show the debate skills he has honed over several campaigns.
Governor Rick Perry of Texas, whose candidacy has been drawn into question over a trio of shaky debate performances, did little to reassure supporters last night and lacked the swagger he has previously displayed.
Herman Cain, who has been a virtual unknown but has surged in recent national polls, was granted a spot in the middle of the debate stage and used it to focus relentlessly on his so-called 9-9-9 plan, which would replace the current tax system with a 9 percent federal flat tax on corporations, personal income, and sales.
“9-9-9 is bold, and we need a bold solution!’’ Cain said, while also criticizing Romney for issuing a far more detailed prescription that has little of the branding flair of Cain’s plan.
“Can you name all 59 points in your 160-page plan?’’ Cain asked Romney.
“Herman, I have had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems,’’ Romney responded. “And I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate.’’
Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, has used a mixture of bravado, humor, and a lively manner to take advantage of some of the dissatisfaction with the most recent front-runners, Romney and Perry. Although he has excited certain segments of the Republican electorate, his candidacy will test whether the party is willing to nominate someone with no political experience.
But if previous debates were like a boxing match, with candidates throwing haymakers at one another, the debate last night was more like a late-night poker game, with candidates sitting around a table and giving each other a light ribbing.
“I think it’s a catchy phrase,’’ former Utah governor Jon Huntsman said of Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. “In fact I thought it was the price of a pizza when I heard about it.’’
“When you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it upside-down, I think the devil’s in the details,’’ Representative Michele Bachmann said.
Although Romney was questioned repeatedly, he never appeared off-kilter. In many ways, Romney enjoyed home advantage. The debate took place in a state where he has a vacation residence, and where he dominates in the polls. The entire debate was focused on the economy, the issue he has staked much of his candidacy on. “I spent my life in the economy,’’ Romney said. “I spent my entire career working in the private sector, starting businesses, helping turn around businesses, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.’’
Passions have run high, particularly between Romney and Perry, and last night they sparred over health care. Perry criticized Romney for passing a plan in Massachusetts that provided the blueprint for President Obama’s national plan. But Romney turned the attack into a way to criticize Perry for not doing more to improve health care coverage in Texas. “We have less than 1 percent of our kids uninsured,’’ Romney said of Massachusetts. “You have 1 million kids uninsured; I care about people.’’
Romney argued at one point that China was manipulating its currency, and should be penalized. Huntsman, a former ambassador to China, disagreed, saying it would ignite a trade war that could hurt America.
“We’re being hollowed out by China . . . and that’s having a massive impact for us,’’ Romney said. “If you’re not willing to stand up to China, you’ll get run over by China.’’
Perry entered the debate wounded, and desperately needing to reassure supporters and potential fund-raisers that he could regain momentum after suffering a severe slide in the polls. He appeared somber last night, and seemed loath to join in the quips around the oval-shaped table.
In a debate billed as solely focused on the economy, Perry told viewers to stay tuned. His plan would be coming later this week.
“Mitt’s had six years to work on a plan,’’ he said. “I’ve been in this about eight weeks.’’ He said several times that he wanted to jump-start the economy by focusing on a “treasure trove’’ of energy resources, an idea he returned to several times even as he was pressed for more specifics.
Bachmann was once among the top tier of candidates, fueled by her victory in the Iowa straw poll. But she has stumbled since then. A new NBC/Marist poll in Iowa shows her at 10 percent, well behind Romney and Cain.
Huntsman has recast his campaign to focus almost exclusively on New Hampshire, and briefly showed an uptick in statewide polls. But he has also been unable to break through in a contest that has been largely overshadowed by Romney and Perry and, increasingly, Cain.
Also participating in the debate were former senator Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania; former House speaker Newt Gingrich; and Representative Ron Paul, of Texas.
Romney would not rule out approving another federal bailout on the scale of the one passed in 2008, although he was critical of the approach.
“I’m not interested in bailing out individual institutions that have wealthy people that want to make sure their shares are worth something,’’ Romney said. “I am interested in making sure that we preserve our financial system, our currency.’’ At another point, Romney said he did not endorse Obama’s plan extending a payroll tax cut, indicating that he wanted “permanent changes to the tax code.’’
“I don’t like temporary little Band-Aids,’’ Romney said.
Most candidates said they opposed any tax increases as part of the debt ceiling negotiations, even after seeing a video of President Ronald Reagan talking about the need for compromise.
Because the debate - held at Dartmouth College and sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post - was focused on the economy, social issues weren’t supposed to come up. But one candidate obliquely referenced the confrontation between Perry and Romney over disparaging comments a pastor made about Romney’s Mormon faith.
“Since this discussion is all about economics, Governor Romney, I promise this won’t be about religion,’’ Huntsman said.
Romney’s campaign called on Perry yesterday to disavow Pastor Robert Jeffress, who is a supporter of the Texas governor and called Mormonism a “cult.’’ Perry’s campaign responded by calling on Romney to disavow his Massachusetts health care plan.
Before the debate, liberal groups - echoing protests from the Occupy Wall Street movement raging in New York and spreading to Boston and throughout the country - dominated the free speech area on the Dartmouth College green.
While each of the candidates had about a dozen supporters present, the most vocal groups were supporting Social Security, action on climate change, and funding for AIDS research.
Suzy Kerr, a retired lobbyist, came with her book club.
“We’re a bunch of 60-year-old women looking at our grandchildren not able to get jobs,’’ Kerr said. People are angry, she said. “We heard the Tea Party, and their answer is no. That’s no answer, no solution.’’
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at email@example.com. Globe correspondent Shira Schoenberg contributed to this report.Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at email@example.com. Globe correspondent Shira Schoenberg contributed to this report.