Herman Cain's rivals were calling 911 over his 999 plan in tax-free New Hampshire.
Rick Santorum blasted it during the Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College on Tuesday night, saying Cain's proposed 9 percent sales tax was anathema in a state without a sales tax.
"How many people here are for a sales tax in New Hampshire? There you go, Herman, that's how many votes you'll get in New Hampshire."
Michael Dennehy, who helped John McCain win two New Hampshire Primaries, called it a critical moment for Cain, a businessman who is trying to claw his way out of the second tier of candidates.
"Santorum just hit a major, major point regarding Herman Cain," said Dennehy, who is not with a candidate. "It makes it extremely challenging for him here."
Cain got plenty of face time in Tuesday’s debate, getting in dozens of plugs for his 999 plan. But in the end, local political observers said Mitt Romney had the most consistent performance. He entered the night as the frontrunner, and none of his opponents did anything to change that.
“It was a very good night for Mitt Romney,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. “He was very commanding out there, pretty comfortable.”
But he said Cain also did well. “If you turned it on and had been paying no attention to anything before tonight, you would think it was Cain and Romney who are the top two candidates, and it’s certainly starting to look that way.”
Perry, by comparison, continued his downward slide, people interviewed said.
“I don’t think he did anything to change the story about how he seems to be a bit of an empty suit,” Scala said. “Not an impressive debate performance.”
Rich Killion, a former senior adviser to Tim Pawlenty in New Hampshire, also called Romney the big winner.
“Many candidates had a chance to directly question him, and he easily swatted them away like flies,” he said. “The economy was the sole topic, and it was lodged right in his wheelhouse.”
Killion also thought Cain looked good, but pointed out that Romney never engaged him on his 999 plan.
“Romney knows the national sales tax component won't wear well for the long haul here in New Hampshire,” he said.
Amelia Chasse, a Portsmouth Republican, had Romney and Newt Gingrich atop her rankings, with Cain and Michele Bachmann close behind.
“Romney gave his usual polished performance, but started off sounding a bit irritated, smug and hurried, like he couldn’t be bothered with the debate,” she said. “He is clearly ready for the general.”
Chasse said Perry failed to impress her.
“Perry is the talking points candidate,” she said. “He completely falls apart when talking about any specifics other than Texas stats. Makes him look dumb, although I suspect he isn't really a dumb guy.”
Bedford Republican Stephen Poschmann said Romney was “in command,” while Cain also fared well. He said Perry “did not do what he needed to do.”
He added that following the debate, there is no real reason for Santorum, Jon Huntsman and Bachmann to stay in the race.
“Romney is still the winner,” added Jeff Hatch, Romney’s Salem town chairman. “He wasn’t hurt at all.”
He called Perry the biggest loser. “Was he even there the first hour?”
Chris Buck of Dover, former New Hampshire campaign manager for Thad McCotter, thought Cain won the debate.
“Love it or hate it, 999 got more play than any other issue," he said. "Voters like simple solutions that they can understand and champion. Even if Cain does not win the nomination, he is demonstrating a model of political messaging. Keep it simple, and hammer the message over and over again. Remember how George W. Bush got elected?”
Several people complained about the debate format and the answers the candidates gave.
Conservative blogger William Smith of Merrimack said he thought moderator Charlie Rose struggled reading the questions and showed no control.
“Poor lighting, poor sound,” he said. “Lots of stuff, really.”
Andrew Hemingway, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, called the debate “more of the same,” saying he was disappointed with the lack of specific answers from candidates.
“A lot of the Republican candidates aren’t painting a picture of a brighter future,” said Hemingway, who was in the debate hall Monday night. “They’re so consumed in the details of right now… I think they’re missing the bigger picture. Paint for us the bigger picture of what America will be, where we’re going under your leadership.”