Candidates during the presidential debate sponsored by The Washington Post and Bloomberg at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Oct. 11, 2011. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

If you watched the Republican primary debate on Tuesday night, you heard a lot about the economy — especially taxes — and you also learned that ‘9-9-9’ is not a pizza-pie price quote from candidate and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain.

What you didn’t hear a lot of, at least this time around, was the word “innovation.”

We haven’t been shy about acknowledging that “innovation” is little more than a fancy way to describe something new. And, as campaign season kicks into high gear, be prepared for the word to come up in campaign rhetoric on both sides of the aisle.

Based on a search of the transcript from Wednesday night’s debate, the word “innovation” was used seven times — mostly by the former governor of Utah and ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman (four times). Early on in the debate, Huntsman was asked whether he thought the focus of job creation should be on “trying to create the innovative jobs of tomorrow” and what he thought those jobs were:

Huntsman: There are two things that critically need to be done for us to stay ahead in this highly-competitive world. And when we lose one or both of them, we lose out to the Chinese and the Indians.

One is maintaining a strong commitment to innovation entrepreneurship and freedom in the marketplace. We have the sense of innovation that no country has been able to replicate. Some have tried, and some will continue to try, but nobody does it like we do here, and that gives rise to high technology, to regular manufacturing jobs across the board. It makes this economy hum when it's working well.

The second part of it is, you need a marketplace like Rick described a moment ago in which you can translate those innovations into products. We are losing our ability to maintain a competitive marketplace today.

... That's taxes, that's regulation. We have lost it to others. So, right now, we are not able to translate innovation to the — we've got to regain the magic of a strong marketplace so that we have the complete package.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. speaks as U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) listens. (Toni Sandys/The Washington Post)

...but the real issue for us is Medicaid and how to get the flexibility on Medicaid so that the innovators can occur in the states. I can promise you, whether it's Governor Jindal or myself or Susana Martinez over in New Mexico, that's where you will find the real innovation in health care. The way to deliver health care more efficiently, more effectively is to block-grant those dollars back to the state and keep this federal government that has this one-size-fits-all mentality from driving the thought process that we have seen destroy health care in this country today.

Perry was pressed regarding his call for greater freedom from Washington. But he remained adamant that, even as Texas had received 16 waivers for Medicaid from the federal government, Uncle Sam continued to wield too much power over states’ ability to innovate:

They haven't anywhere near given the states — I think what you should see is the block-granting, not having to go to Washington, D.C., and ask them, mother, may I every time you come up with a concept or an idea. Block-granting back to the states, I'll guarantee you, the governors and their innovators in their states will come up with ways to better deliver health care more efficiently, more effectively, more cost-efficiently, and that's what this country is looking for, is a president who understands that we have these 50 laboratories of innovation, free up these states from Washington, D.C.'s one size fits all.

From left to right: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Former U.S .Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), Businessman Herman Cain, Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

...if you want to get the economy going again, you have to have people who understand how employers think, what it takes to create jobs.

And what it takes to create jobs is more than just a temporary shift in a tax stimulus, it needs instead fundamental restructuring of our economy to make that sure we are the most attractive place in the world for investment, for innovation, for growth, and for hiring. And we can do that again.

If the candidates’ Web sites are any indication, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to innovation’s role in the campaign 2012 rhetoric. It will be interesting to see if, as with health care, energy and education among other tried-and-true sectors, each of the candidates will put forward a platform on innovation, replacing the rhetorical lightness of the word with a more substantial meaning.

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