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Republican presidential hopefuls, from left, Texas Gov. Rick Perry , businessman Herman Cain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) listen to Romney speak during Tuesday night's debate at Dartmouth College. (REUTERS/Adam Hunger)

GOP debate's focus is the economy

HANOVER - After reestablishing himself as the frontrunner in the polls, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney resumed attacks on President Barack Obama and, for the most part, avoided direct confrontations with his rivals at Tuesday night's debate at Dartmouth College.

VIDEO > Watch Tuesday's debate

TRANSCRIPT > Full text of the debate

Hosted by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post, the debate was focused on the economy, and featured the candidates sitting around a table. Businessman Herman Cain occupied one of the center seats, next to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.

Cain, and the tax plan he calls 'nine, nine, nine' - referring to a 9 percent federal corporate tax, 9 percent personal income tax and 9 percent federal sales tax - was frequently targeted by the other candidates.

'It won't pass, Herman,' former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said. Turning to the crowd, he said: 'How many people here in New Hampshire want to pay a sales tax? See Herman? That's how many people in New Hampshire would vote for your plan.'

New Hampshire has no sales tax.

The plan was also attacked by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who in a tongue-in-cheek reference to Cain's experience as CEO of Godfather's Pizza, said: 'I think it's a catchy phrase. In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard it.'

Cain, though, repeatedly defended what he said was a 'well-studied, well-developed' plan that 'is not the price of a pizza.'

'This is the difference between career politicians and a non-politician,' Cain said. 'The American people want a bold solution, not something that just kicks the can down the road.'

Poll numbers

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his candidacy in August, Romney lost his frontrunner spot. But a Harvard/St. Anselm poll released Monday showed Romney attracting 38 percent of the vote among likely New Hampshire Republican voters. Cain was second with 20 percent and Paul third with 13 percent. Perry, meanwhile, was at 4 percent.

Romney said he would be able to turn around the economy because he understands how to work with elected officials from each side of the aisle.

'I would be prepared to be a leader,' he said. In a reference to Obama, he said: 'Three years ago, we selected someone with no leadership experience. You have to stand by your principles. At the same time, you have to realize that there are good Democrats and good Republicans who are willing to find common ground.'

2008 meltdown

Asked if she thought it was right that nobody in the banking industry served time in jail after the 2008 financial meltdown, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said she blamed the federal government and the federal housing loan programs Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae for the recession.

'It began with the federal government,' she said. 'It began with Freddie and Fannie.'

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, agreed with Bachmann. He said the real culprits were U.S. Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut - both Democrats who sponsored legislation that became the financial regulatory reform law - and who supported the federal housing loan programs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

'And if you want to put people in jail ... you ought to start with Barney Frank and Chris Dodd and let's look at the politicians who created the environment, the politicians who profited from the environment, and the politicians who put this country in trouble,' Gingrich said.

Reagan video

After being shown a video of President Ronald Reagan saying a compromise on tax increases would be needed to ensure spending reductions, Perry - who has said he would not agree to any level of tax increases in exchange for any spending reductions - said he believed Reagan would do things differently if he knew how things would turn out.

'Well, I think we are certainly talking about different times, because what I heard him say there, that he was willing to trade tax increases for reductions,' Perry said. 'And I don't think he ever saw those reductions, he just saw the tax increase. As a matter of fact, in his diary, he made that statement that he is still looking around for those reductions.'

Health care

During a session where the candidates were allowed to ask questions of each other directly, Romney was the most frequent target. He was asked about his support for the Massachusetts health care plan that has been compared to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act - the two plans are often called 'Romneycare' and 'Obamacare' by critics - as well as his support of limiting the elimination of estate taxes to people making $200,000 or less, which Gingrich said was a lower amount than proposed by Obama.

'I'm not worried about rich people. They're just fine,' Romney said when answering the estate tax question. 'Poor people have a safety net. It's the people in the middle class who are suffering.'

Romney's only criticism of another candidate came during the questioning session, when Perry asked him about the Massachusetts health care plan, which has resulted in 98 percent of Bay State residents being insured.

'We had 1 percent of children without health care. You had 1 million children without health care,' Romney said. 'I will repeal Obamacare. I will return to the states the privileges we had to care for our poor.'

The debate was held with a backdrop of hundreds of protesters at the Dartmouth campus. Near the end, one man began shouting, temporarily distracting moderator Charlie Rose and Bachmann.

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