HANOVER, N.H., Oct. 12, 2011 -- What a difference a few weeks make. It wasn't too long ago that the Republican presidential nomination appeared to be a two-candidate race: the consistent frontrunner Mitt Romney vs. the surging newcomer Rick Perry.
At a debate last month in Florida, Perry even went so far as to joke that felt like a "piñata" because he was taking so many shots from his rivals, threatened by his rapid surge towards the top of the polls since he entered the race in August.
The former Godfather's Pizza CEO has recently overtaken Perry in the polls – and in a CBS poll last week Cain even tied with Romney.
And so it was that at the Bloomberg/Washington Post debate Cain snagged the seat next to Romney as his chief competitor. It was Cain who fielded the first question of the night. And it was Cain who was on the receiving end of most of the candidates' attacks.
Cain, though, didn't appear overwhelmed by the new bullseye on his back. He defended his 9-9-9 economic plan in the face of criticism, such as Jon Huntsman's joke that "9-9-9" sounded like the price of a pizza or Michele Bachmann's quip that "9-9-9" upside down was "6-6-6."
"My top priority is 9-9-9 – jobs, jobs, jobs," Cain said, touting his proposal to change the tax code to a 9 percent business flat tax, a 9 percent personal income flat tax, and a 9 percent sales tax.
If Cain's rise in the Republican field was confirmed by the debate, then so too was Romney's status as an unruffled frontrunner. Romney holds a commanding lead in the Granite State, with a recent NBC News/Marist poll showing that Romney enjoyed 45 percent support compared with 13 percent for Cain and Ron Paul. Perry, for his part, only had 7 percent support.
Romney, perhaps enjoying the friendly location at Dartmouth due to his time as governor of nearby Massachusetts, never appeared threatened onstage. He calmly defused attacks and appeared more presidential than some of his rivals, such as Newt Gingrich who suggested that Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., be jailed for their roles in the financial meltdown before anyone on Wall Street… or Huntsman who repeatedly made jokes that fell flat.
"People are not going to – in my opinion – are not going to be looking for someone who is not successful," Romney said. "They want someone who has been successful and who knows how fundamentally the economy works. Look, I would not be in this race had I spent my life in politics alone. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but right now, with the American people in the kind of financial crisis they are in, they need someone who knows how to create jobs – and I do."
Even before the seventh GOP debate had begun, Romney had already enjoyed a successful day in New Hampshire, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – who only a week ago was viewed as a possible rival if he entered the race – endorsing him at an event in Hanover.
The field exits New Hampshire with Romney appearing firmly in control. If the election were held today, the former Massachusetts governor would surely feel confident, but no one will cast a vote for nearly three months, so there is still plenty of time for things to change. And as Perry can attest to, things can change awfully fast.
Next stop: Las Vegas, for a debate next Tuesday night.