LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Scores of reporters and dozens of cameras surrounded the candidate in the "spin room" here at the Sands Expo and Convention Center following Tuesday night's CNN Republican presidential debate. "Mr. Cain! Mr. Cain!" reporters shouted, shoving their microphones toward the man who was never expected to become a serious contender for the GOP nomination. If nothing else, the Las Vegas debate confirmed that Atlanta businessman Herman Cain is indeed now a contender.
The two-hour televised debate, moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper, began with a question about taxes that the candidates interpreted as a call to attack Cain's now-famous "9-9-9" tax plan. "If we give Congress a 9 percent sales tax, how long will it take a liberal president and a liberal Congress to run that up to maybe 90 percent?" Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann asked. Cooper then cited "a lot of prominent conservatives" as authorities for his assertion that Cain's plan would raise taxes on middle- and lower-income Americans.
"The thing that I would encourage people to do before they engage in this knee-jerk reaction is read our analysis," Cain said, providing the address of his campaign website, and denying the accusations made against his plan, which would replace the current tax code with 9 percent flat taxes on personal income, sales and corporate earnings. After Cain finished, Cooper next turned to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whom I've called a "brutal counter-puncher in debates," and Santorum came out swinging.
"Herman's well-meaning, and I love his boldness, and it's great," Santorum said, "but the fact of the matter is, I mean, reports are now out that 84 percent of Americans would pay more taxes under his plan. That's the analysis."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry got his turn next. "Herman, I love you, brother, but let me tell you something, you don't need to have a big analysis to figure this thing out," said Perry, who was obviously eager to recapture momentum after performing poorly in previous debates. "Go to New Hampshire, where they don't have a sales tax, and you're fixing to give them one."
Cain responded to that, and also to Bachmann's assertion that 9-9-9 constitutes a "value added tax," by saying that his opponents were trying to confuse voters by "mixing apples and oranges. The state tax is an apple. We are replacing the current tax code with oranges." Cooper then invited Texas Rep. Ron Paul to elaborate on his own description of Cain's plan as "dangerous," before turning to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the longtime GOP front-runner who is now in a virtual dead heat with Cain, according to the influential Real Clear Politics average of national polls. Romney turned Cain's figure of speech against him by saying, "I'm going to be getting a bushel basket that has apples and oranges in it because I've got to pay both taxes, and the people in Nevada don't want to pay both taxes."
The crowd applauded and cheered, but Romney also praised Cain's "chutzpah" in proposing such a bold reform, and when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich got his turn, he said, "First of all, I think that Herman Cain deserves a lot of credit. He has had the courage to go out and take a specific very big idea at the right level." With such remarks, Romney and Gingrich acknowledged Cain's legitimacy as a candidate -- a point his campaign has fought hard to establish -- and one whose stunning ascent since winning last month's Florida straw poll has transformed the 2012 Republican campaign. Whatever damage Cain suffered from the criticism directed at him during the debate, it will likely be remembered as the moment when the Tea Party-backed candidate (who has often made wry jokes about being the "dark horse" of the GOP field) became a contender that his rivals must take seriously.
Meanwhile, most observers at Tuesday's event agreed that Perry finally had a fairly decent debate performance, although it may have come too late to help the Texas governor recover the front-runner status he lost during three debates in September. Afterwards, one of Romney's advisers, Ron Kaufman, joked to Slate's Dave Weigel: "Perry was awake. I'll give him that."
Perry sought to score points against Romney during the debate by recycling a five-year-old Boston Globe story that the former Massachusetts governor had hired a lawn-care company that employed illegal immigrants. The attack appeared to miss its mark, but sparked what Cooper later called "fireworks," as Perry and Romney had a testy exchange. It gave Romney a chance to deliver a put-down: ""It's been a couple of tough debates for Rick, and I understand that. So you're going to get testy." Santorum also got in some sharp blows against Romney who, as Alexander Burns of Politico said, "was thrown off balance for the first time in the 2012 race." So the takeaway from Tuesday could be this: Perry halted his slide, Santorum forcefully presented himself as a defender of family values -- a message pitched to his supporters in Iowa, where he has campaigned relentlessly -- and Romney got slightly rattled.
The biggest story of the night, however, was that a candidate long dismissed by political pundits as a hopeless long shot has now become the focus of the Republican campaign. Ten weeks ago, when I followed Herman Cain around to campaign events during his bus tour of Iowa, there were rarely more than two or three local reporters covering him at each stop. When he arrived in the "spin room" in the basement of the Sands Expo Center last night, he was instantly swarmed by camera crews and reporters representing dozens of news agencies from around the world. The pundits must now recalculate their estimates of Cain, the contender.
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