LAS VEGAS — Republican presidential contenders attacked upstart Herman Cain’s economic plan Tuesday night as a tax increase waiting to happen, moving swiftly in campaign debate to blunt the former businessman’s unlikely rise in the race for the party’s nomination.
Old animosities also flared anew as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry swapped biting personal criticisms. “You have a problem letting other people continue speaking,” Romney lectured his rival as the two men interrupted one another repeatedly.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota led the verbal assault on Cain moments after the debate began, saying his call for a 9 percent federal sales tax would only be the beginning, with the rate rising later.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum wasn’t nearly as gentle, citing one analysis that found that taxes would go up for 84 percent of the nation’s households if Cain’s proposal went into effect. “We’re talking about major increases in taxes,” he said, adding that a single person and a couple with children with the same income would pay the same tax under Cain’s proposal.
Undeterred, Cain insisted the charges were untrue. He said he was being criticized because lobbyists, accountants and others “want to continue to be able to manipulate the American people with a 10-million- word mess,” the current tax code.
Cain’s proposal is for a 9 percent personal income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax and a 9 percent national sales tax.
The former pizza company CEO is the latest and unlikeliest phenomenon in the race to pick a rival for President Barack Obama. A black man in a party that draws few votes from Africans Americans, he had bumped along with little notice as Romney sought to fend off one fast-rising rival after another.
That all changed in the past few weeks, after Perry burst into the race and then fell back in the polls. However unlikely Cain’s rise, Tuesday night’s debate made clear that none of his rivals are willing to let him go unchallenged.
“I love you, brother, but let me tell you something, you don’t have to pay a big analysis to figure this out,” Perry said to Cain. “Go to New Hampshire where they don’t have an income tax and they don’t have any interest in one,” he said, referring to the state that will hold the first primary early next year.
The debate was the fifth since Labor Day, and the last scheduled for nearly a month in a race that is fluid in more than one way.
While polls chart a series of rises and falls for various contenders — Romney remaining at or near the top — the schedule is far from set. Florida’s decision to move up its primary set off a scramble as Iowa maneuvered to make sure its caucuses are the first real test of the race and New Hampshire works to protect its half-century distinction as host to the first primary.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman skipped this debate. He was in New Hampshire instead because he’s boycotting the Nevada caucuses in the dispute over the GOP primary calendar. Nevada has scheduled its contest for Jan. 14, and Republican officials are pressuring Romney and other Republicans to join Huntsman’s boycott if the state refuses to hold the caucuses later in the month.
Romney has so far refused to join the boycott, though the New Hampshire primary, traditionally the nation’s first, is a must-win contest for him. In a conference call with New Hampshire supporters before the debate, he reassured Republicans there that he sees their primary as important.
Romney also used the call to preview the line of criticism against Cain, who has been near the top of polls for over a week and has been facing intense scrutiny, particularly over his tax plan.
“Most people in middle income categories will have their taxes go up” under that plan, Romney said in the call, and he said senior citizens would be hurt.
In that, he and Democratic President Obama agree. In an interview with ABC News, Obama said Cain’s tax plan would be a “huge burden” on middle-class and working families.
Romney, too, expected challenges, including over how he plans to help the economy if he does become president.
He told the Las Vegas Review Journal’s editorial board in an interview: “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom. Allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up and let it turn around and come back up,”
Obama’s campaign — increasingly focused on Romney as the likely Republican nominee — responded immediately. “Mitt Romney’s message to Nevada homeowners struggling to pay their mortgage bills is simple: You’re on your own, so step aside,” spokesman Ben LaBolt said.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report.