By John McCormick and Lisa Lerer
HANOVER,N.H. - Leading Republican presidential candidates promised Tuesday to deliver the leadership that Washington needs to overcome congressional gridlock as they pitched their jobs and tax plans and called for the removal of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Former pizza executive Herman Cain repeatedly promoted his 9-9-9 tax plan at a debate Tuesday night focused on the economy, even as the other candidates mocked it as impractical. The proposal would replace the current tax system with 9 percent corporate and individual taxes and a 9 percent sales tax.
Jon Huntsman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to China and ex- Utah governor, was one of those to mock Cain's plan.
"I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard it," Huntsman said, adding that instead something needs to be done that is "doable-doable-doable."
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said: "When you take the 9-9-9 plan and turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the details."
The debate covered a range of economic topics including Chinese currency, housing loans, job creation plans and the possibility of future bailouts, should the nation face another economic collapse.
Former Massachuetts governor Mitt Romney, the leader in polls of the Republican race, left open the possibility that he would support another rescue package for the financial community though he criticized implementation of the 2008 package backed by both parties.
"I'm not interested in bailing out individual institutions that have wealthy people that want to make sure their shares are worth something," said Romney said at the debate at Dartmouth College sponsored by Bloomberg News and The Washington Post. "I am interested in making sure that we preserve our financial system, our currency."
Romney, 64, and seven Republican rivals are competing tonight to persuade voters they are best-suited to challenge President Barack Obama on the economy.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry argued he could deal with both Republicans and Democrats, if elected to the White House.
"I've had to deal with folks on both sides of the aisle" as governor, he said.
Perry, who is scheduled to give a speech on the economy and energy in Pittsburgh on Friday, also said he wanted to open up the nation's "treasure trove" of energy resources to invigorate the economy.
The 90-minute debate, not including television breaks, focused on the economy and was broadcast on Bloomberg Television, Bloomberg Radio, WBIN-TV in New Hampshire and on Bloomberg.com and WashingtonPost.com.
The session was viewed as especially important for Cain, 65, and Perry, 61. Cain's newly energized candidacy is reshaping the primary race and creating a new challenge for Perry as he tries to regain ground he has lost to Romney.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia won applause when he called for replacing Bernanke as the Fed's chief.
"Bernanke has in secret spent hundreds of billions of dollars bailing out one group and not bailing out another group," he said. "It is wrong and it is corrupt for one man to have that kind of power."
Romney said he would pick a new Fed chairman as president, though he declined to indicate who he might choose.
Perry was asked whether he would follow the model of Ronald Reagan and agree to tax increases as part of spending cuts.
"I don't think he ever saw those reductions," Perry said, as he called for a balanced budget amendment.
"One of the reasons that I think Americans are so untrustworthy of what's going on is because they never see a cut in spending," Perry said. "The fact of the matter is the issue is we need to have a balanced budget amendment to the United States."
Reagan, renowned by Republicans as a tax-cutter, also increased revenue about a dozen times when confronted with surging deficits. The Treasury Department has estimated those measures would be the equivalent of $300 billion annually Tuesday.
Hours before the debate Romney won the endorsement of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who came to the state to personally deliver his support.
Christie's announcement followed his decision last week not to enter the race, dashing the hopes of some Republican leaders and donors seeking an alternative to Romney and others running for the party's nomination.
The gathering marks the seventh formal debate for the Republican candidates since May 5. Their next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 18 in Las Vegas.
Romney, who has become a more frequent target for his rivals, enjoyed something of a home-field advantage for the debate, given that he owns property in New Hampshire and his service as governor of neighboring Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. He also unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
The dynamics of this year's contest have shifted over the last month as Perry fell from frontrunner status following stumbles at previous debates, including his comment at a Sept. 22 face-off that those who oppose an in-state tuition program for the children of undocumented immigrants that he favored as Texas' governor don't "have a heart." He has since retreated from that phrasing, while standing by the program.
A pre-debate poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents by Bloomberg News and The Washington Post, the debate sponsors, found that Cain, a former chief executive officer of Godfather's Pizza, has gained ground.
Romney was picked by 24 percent of Republicans as the person they want to win the nomination, followed by Cain at 16 percent and Perry at 13 percent.
Tonight's debate was the first time the candidates have debated sitting down. They sat at an oval table based on poll results, which means Romney and Cain sat next to each other. They also asked questions of each other.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, discounted the significance of Christie's endorsement.
"We're talking about a governor with a failed record on jobs endorsing a former governor with a failed record on jobs," she told reporters before the debate. "I would probably look for someone with a little more track record for success."
With assistance from Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington and Terrence Dopp in Trenton, N.J.