All eyes were on Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain in Tuesday’s Republican debate, and both failed to ­­seize the moment.

Cain arrived as a candidate rising on the strength of a buoyant personality and a catchy tax plan that has captured the imagination of many conservative Republicans. But after a series of debates in which his rivals treated him kindly, Cain found himself on the defensive for the first time, with his tax plan under attack.

Perry arrived in a slump after three mediocre debate performances in September and poll numbers that were sinking. But he found himself struggling to reassert himself, at times sidelined as others took over the debate and at times caught in exchanges that turned unexpectedly against him.

It was Mitt Romney who prospered most. The former Massachusetts governor took advantage of a debate focused solely on the economy and a format that kept him in the thick of the discussion to deliver another crisp performance. He countered when others attacked, particularly when Perry went after him for his health-care plan in Massachusetts. The longer the debate went on, the more it favored him.

The crystallizing moments came when the candidates, for the first time in this campaign, were given an opportunity to question one another. Four of his seven rivals — Cain, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and Perry — chose to query Romney, but none scored a clean hit.

Cain tried to turn his simple tax plan into an asset by asking Romney whether he could name all 59 points in the former governor’s recently released economic program. Romney parried by saying that simple answers “are often inadequate.” He went on to say that his economic plan is far more comprehensive than what Cain is offering.

Gingrich wondered why Romney had a proposal to lower the capital gains tax only on those Americans with incomes below $200,000, saying his threshold was even lower than President Obama has generally set. Romney turned it into a plea for helping the middle class.

“I’m not worried about rich people,” he said, adding that the poor have a social safety net. The middle class, he said, have suffered most and deserve some help.

Huntsman tried to hit Romney on his record of job creation as governor of Massachusetts but flubbed an opportunity with a ham-handed reference to weekend criticism of Romney’s Mormon religion that fell flat.

When Perry tried on health care, Romney turned it back on him. Massachusetts, he said, now has just 1 percent of children without health insurance. “You have a million kids uninsured in Texas,” he added. “A million kids. Under President Bush, the percentage uninsured went down. Under your leadership, it’s gone up.”

The debate, sponsored by The Washington Post, Bloomberg News and WBIN-TV in New Hampshire, took the candidates across a series of issues, from whether the government should have bailed out the banks in 2008, to who has a plan to create jobs, to the future of the Federal Reserve, to energy and housing and health care. It was substantive and meaty, and the candidates often went deeper than in some debates into the central issue on the minds of the American people.

Cain kept his composure, but his plan for a 9 percent income tax rate, a 9 percent corporate tax rate and a 9 percent national sales tax drew fire. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) said it would create a new revenue stream for the federal government that could easily grow over time. Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) called it a tax plan, not an economic plan.

Cain would not relent. When challenged on whether his plan would produce enough revenue to fund the federal government, he said his numbers were correct, not those that suggested otherwise. When he was asked about the fact that his national sales tax would force consumers to pay 9 percent more for milk, bread and beer, he quipped, “I don’t buy beer.”

But the exposure of his plan probably will lead to more rigorous scrutiny of what he has proposed, and while many people like it, the fact that he is now in the spotlight means he could have many more questions to answer about his ideas and background in the weeks ahead.

Perry was asked early about why he did not have a jobs plan. He said that he would offer this week an energy proposal to tap the untapped reserves of the United States and that it would create more than 1 million jobs. But he was not able to say more about job creation and, unlike in past debates, did not spend much time extolling his record in Texas.

He also faced tough questioning about a Texas fund that has invested in new companies and how that differed in principle from the scandal involving the Obama administration over government investment in the solar energy firm Solyndra, which recently went bankrupt.

“I don’t think the federal government should be involved in that type of investment, period,” he said. “If states want to choose to do that, I think that’s fine for states to do that.”

The debate underscored the candidates’ opposition to any new taxes, as well as their near-unanimous view that the federal government bears much of the responsibility for the economic meltdown that took place in late 2008. They showed that on many issues, they are in far more agreement than disagreement and wholly at odds with Obama and the policies he is espousing.

Gingrich had strong moments. Bachmann showed her desire to get back into the thick of the race. Santorum demonstrated again his eagerness to challenge those in the upper ranks of the race. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) stuck to his script by attacking the Fed, and Huntsman sought to find a way to break through in New Hampshire.

Tuesday’s debate was but one more moment in a long campaign. Perry has time to recover and the resources to help him do so. Cain retains assets that the other candidates don’t have. But Romney again stood out in the GOP field. He once again emerged from a debate relatively unscathed and following the script he has set out for his candidacy. He has yet to win the hearts of his conservative party, but so far the debates have caused him little heartburn.


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