Is 9-9-9 enough to keep Herman Cain a GOP front-runner?

Herman Cain is enjoying a surge in popularity in New Hampshire. But will his 9-9-9 tax plan withstand the scrutiny that top-tier candidates must face?

Toni Sandys/AP
Republican presidential candidates Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain participate in a presidential debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday.

Herman Cain is enjoying a surge in popularity in New Hampshire. He finished second to Mitt Romney in a recent poll here and rode a wave of momentum into Tuesday’s debate at Dartmouth College, where he proved to be the primary challenger to the front-runner.

The question now is whether he can sustain his top-tier status under the scrutiny of voters who like to meet candidates up close and dig for details behind catch phrases such as “9-9-9” – Cain’s oft-repeated slogan for his plan to radically alter the federal tax structure.

“He’s the latest candidate around whom people who are dissatisfied with the idea of Mitt Romney as the eventual nominee are coalescing,” says Christopher Galdieri, who teaches a class on the New Hampshire primary at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.

But candidates Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and even Donald Trump have enjoyed such moments in the sun, he notes. It’s not clear yet, Mr. Galdieri says, whether there’s “genuine strong support for Herman Cain himself or whether it’s more conservative Republicans just checking him out ... as a potential nominee.”

Cain garnered 20 percent support among likely voters in the New Hampshire Republican party in a poll released Monday by political institutes at St. Anselm and Harvard University. That’s still significantly behind former Massachusetts Governor Romney’s 38 percent. Congressman Ron Paul of Texas took third place with 13 percent.

But few voters are firm on their preferences at this point. Among Romney supporters in the poll, just 10 percent said they’d definitely vote for him; for Cain it was just 6 percent.

New Hampshire – traditionally the first state in the nation to hold a primary vote – is famous for its anything-can-happen-here reputation. Independents, about 40 percent of the voters in New Hampshire, can opt to vote in either party’s primary, and experts say it’s hard to gauge how many of them will vote until the election looms much closer. The date of this year’s primary vote is still to be decided, but could come as early as December.

Cain, former head of the Godfather’s Pizza chain, managed to grab the spotlight during much of Tuesday night’s debate, and “he’s very engaging in that format,” says Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth professor of government who has long followed New Hampshire primaries.

But his appealing shoot-from-the hip style, a quality which served John McCain well in the 2008 Republican primary, may not be enough to sway voters this time around, Professor Fowler says. Voters in New Hampshire, as in the rest of the country, are deeply concerned about the economy, and they’ll be looking at the details of his plan to institute a 9 percent income tax, 9 percent business tax, and 9 percent sales tax.

Fowler predicts that many senior citizens won’t like Cain’s plan to do away with dedicated taxes for Medicare and Social Security; lower-income residents won’t like the idea of their income tax going up; and a flat tax won’t go over well with a lot of voters when they realize their companies would no longer get a deduction for covering employee health care plans.

“Now that [9-9-9] is starting to get more scrutiny than just a slogan, I think it will sink and he’ll sink with it,” she says.

Among 159 GOP influentials in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina, 92 percent said Cain is someone who “takes a stand” on issues they agree with, and 74 percent said he can beat President Obama, according to a Patch/Huffington Post/Power Outsiders poll.

Among supporters of the tea party movement, Cain and Romney are neck and neck in the recent St. Anselm poll – 30 percent and 29 percent respectively, with a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

For New Hampshire tea partyers who like Cain, he’s “a sweet person ... a good businessman ... a good conservative,” says Jane Aitken, who oversees communications for the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition based in Concord, which does not endorse candidates.

For tea partyers less enthusiastic about his candidacy, she says, the idea of a 9 percent federal sales tax is problematic because “we’ve seen states adding taxes to supposedly reduce another tax, and they just end up with another tax.”

Another issue some tea partyers have with Cain is his statement in Tuesday’s debate that Alan Greenspan did a good job as head of the Federal Reserve. Cain himself once served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Opponent Ron Paul gained cheers from many tea-partiers, Ms. Aitken says, when he retorted that Greenspan was “a disaster” and damaged the economy by keeping interest rates too low. Some conservatives advocate eliminating the Fed altogether.

In New Hampshire, where house parties and retail politics reign, Romney – now in his second run for the nomination – has pressed more palms than any other of his GOP rivals.

The Cain campaign set up state headquarters in Manchester in August, but wasn't seen here between then and Tuesday’s debate. So he still has a lot of work to do, Galdieri says, if he wants to show Granite State voters that this is a serious campaign for the oval office rather than just an effort raise his profile in the Republican party and promote his new memoir.

“We are now going to ramp up," Cain told reporters after speaking at the New Hampshire State House today, the Associated Press reports. "The book tour is over," Cain said, vowing to add staff in New Hampshire and Iowa and bring his campaign bus to the Granite State.

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