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Romney Looks Past Rivals as Debate Focuses on Economy

Jeff Zeleny and Ashley Parker

Mitt Romney offered a robust defense of the health care plan he signed as governor of Massachusetts and sought to look beyond his Republican presidential rivals at a debate here Tuesday night by presenting himself as the leader who is best prepared to take on President Obama.

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With a fresh air of confidence in his candidacy, Romney set out to diminish Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and all but ignored him, a different approach from the last three debates, where he repeatedly tangled with Perry. Given a chance to question a fellow candidate, Romney selected Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

In a debate that focused on the nation’s economic burdens, Romney defended elements of the Wall Street bailout in late 2008 as an imperfect but necessary solution. The view is at odds with the sentiment of many conservative voters, who will help decide the party’s nominee.

“My experience tells me that we were on the precipice and we could have had a complete meltdown of our entire financial system, wiping out all the savings of the American people,”  Romney said. “So action had to be taken.”

Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, was at the center of the discussion for the first time during the race. His candidacy has drawn attention because of his 9-9-9 economic plan, which he repeated so often that it became a memorable tag line. He embraced his plan as a simple solution to restructuring the tax system, even as rivals dismissed it as amounting to a national sales tax.

When Cain confronted Romney on the complexity of his 59-point plan, Romney embraced the criticism, declaring: “Simple answers are always very helpful, but often times inadequate.”

The candidates gathered in Spaulding Auditorium on the campus of Dartmouth College for the seventh debate of the Republican nominating contest. It was the least combative of the debates so far, with questions limited to the economy. But the tone also signaled a change in fortunes — for now, at least — in the Republican field.

In the days leading up to the debate, Perry aggressively challenged Romney and accused him of waffling on conservative principles. But he brought almost none of the criticism to the stage and went for long stretches without being recognized by debate moderators or trying to insert himself into the conversation.

It was unclear whether Perry’s extensive practice sessions had significantly helped him prosecute the argument that he would make a stronger nominee than Romney.

Perry is set to deliver his first major policy speech of the campaign on Friday in Pittsburgh, on energy and jobs. When pressed for specifics, he said, “I’m not going to lay it out all for you tonight.” Asked about Romney’s lengthy economic plan, he said, “You know, Mitt’s had six years to be working on a plan. I’ve been in this for about eight weeks.” Asked if he might accept a budget compromise that could involve raising revenue, as President Ronald Reagan did, Perry suggested that he would not.

“One of the reasons that I think Americans are so untrustworthy of what’s going on in Washington is because they never see a cut in spending,” Perry said. “They always hear the siren song of ‘If you’ll allow us to raise taxes, then we’ll make these reductions over here,’ when the fact of the matter is — the issue is — we need to have a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution.”

The candidates eagerly joined in a chorus of criticism of the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Ben S. Bernanke. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, called him a ”disastrous” leader of the central bank, and Representative Ron Paul of Texas accused the Fed of covering up its actions as the economic crisis worsened.

Cain, who served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in the 1990s, said, “I don’t agree with the actions of this Federal Reserve.” While not singling out the central bank, Bachmann blamed the federal government for the economic crisis by encouraging banks to issue subprime loans.

The debate, which was sponsored by Bloomberg News and The Washington Post, unfolded for nearly two hours as more of a conversation. The eight candidates were seated around a large table, joined by three moderators, who asked questions before an audience of voters in New Hampshire.

For the first time since he entered the race two months ago, Perry was not at the middle of the stage. The seating arrangement was determined by the relative strength of the candidates in a collection of polls, a formula that relegated Perry to the side.

This time, Cain found himself at the center of the debate. He was seated next to Romney, who leads in the polls, and fielded the first question, about what specifically he would do to end the paralysis in Washington.

Later, when Jon M. Huntsman joked that Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan — which calls for reducing the individual and corporate income taxes to 9 percent and introducing a 9 percent national sales tax — sounded more like the price of pizza, Cain shot back that it “didn’t come off a pizza box, no.”

When the Republicans were given a chance to ask a rival a question, all but three directed their questions to Romney, reflecting his perceived status as a front-runner.

Bachmann posed her question to Perry, asking why he was a Democrat at the time Reagan was elected. He replied that many people he had grown up with were Democrats. He said he’d had a conversation with Michael Reagan recently, noting: “I came to the Republican Party sooner in age than his dad did.”

Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania injected the theme of gas into the debate. As he took aim at Perry, he said: “I don’t want to brag, Governor, but Pennsylvania is the gas capital of the world right now, not Texas.”

Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, picked up on the gas riff and tried to deliver a joke, saying: “Washington, D.C., is the gas capital of the country.” The camera panned to Perry, who rolled his eyes.

But it was Romney who dominated the evening, speaking more than the other candidates as he tried to show a command of economic issues. When interrupted at one point, he declared: “I’m still speaking, I’m still speaking, I’m still speaking.”

He said his experience in the private sector, along with his time as governor, made him the most prepared Republican candidate for the job.

In a nominating contest that remains remarkably fluid, though, it remains an open question whether he will maintain his strengths until the voting begins early next year. His rivals, particularly Perry and his allies, are poised to begin their television advertising soon, which could change the dynamic of the race.

When asked whom he would appoint to the Federal Reserve, Romney demurred.

“I’m not sure I’m the nominee yet,” he said.

“Nor is anyone else,” replied the PBS host Charlie Rose, one of the debate moderators.