In Las Vegas, Cain combats criticism of '9-9-9' plan

Republican presidential candidate businessman Herman Cain speaks during a Republican presidential debate, Oct. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Republican presidential candidate businessman Herman Cain speaks during a Republican presidential debate, Oct. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas.
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks during a Republican presidential debate, Oct. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson

LAS VEGAS - Herman Cain's now-famous 9-9-9 plan may have taken a beating during Tuesday night's Republican debate in Las Vegas. But on Wednesday, a crowd of people at the Western Republican Leadership Conference was having none of the criticism.

"I'm the only one who has a plan that throws [the tax code] out and put in what we call..." He raised a hand to his ear.

"9, 9, 9!" they chanted back .

"Oh, I love y'all," Cain told the crowd. "The American people get it."

But while the surging Republican presidential candidate dedicated a portion of his speech to promoting the virtues of his tax plan - "no hidden nines!" he said of its transparency - he has been playing some defense in light of the recent scrutiny of the plan.

Critics, for instance, have charged the plan is a regressive tax that would hit the poor much harder than the rich. "We anticipated that attack," he said with a mischievous gleam in his eye. "But I didn't tell them how I was going to fix it yet."

Nor did he tell attendees at the conference, or a group of about 80 members of the Republican Women of Las Vegas who gathered to hear Cain speak over lunch. But he promised he had a plan to deal with the criticism. "I'm not backing off," he said, saying that the American people wanted a problem solver instead of a politician.

Cain's two days in Las Vegas has had an air of a victory lap for the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, who has seen a meteoric rise through the polls in recent weeks.

"If I had listened to the political experts in August, after the Iowa straw poll, I was supposed to shut the doors in the campaign," he told the Republican Women of Las Vegas, recounting how he was criticized for last of national political experience. "That's the part that they don't get. You don't care if I've never held political office. America needs a problem solver, not another politician."

Cain's feistiness was on full display later for a receptive crowd at the Western Republican Leadership Conference. He called for "attitude adjustments" for both the Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations. He even joked about the controversy surrounding his comments over the weekend that suggested a border fence should be electrified.

"You don't touch the fence" when the subject of immigration came up during the afternoon. He paused and grinned. "I ain't going to say that," he added. "You see, that's what got me in trouble before."

And Cain ribbed President Obama, recalling a controversial 2008 comment when then-candidate Obama said some Americans were clinging to their guns and religion.

"I kinda like my guns and Bible," Cain said to applause to the audience. "I ain't going to give them up."

The businessman even waded into foreign policy issues, where he needs to bolster his credentials. Once again, he found a target in Obama. "You know, when you rise up in the polls, you get this big target on your back. And so I have been criticized for not having extensive foreign policy experience," he said. "And the guy there now does?"

Cain said his foreign policy would be an extension of President Reagan's "peace through strength" by also incorporating clarity.

"When our enemies know who our friends are and know who we are going to stand with and stand by, they won't be emboldened to try and challenge us," he said. He said the country needed to become energy independent to weaken the influence of nations like Iran and to outgrow China.

Cain finished to a standing ovation from the crowd and exited quickly, taking nearly two thirds of the audience with him. That left only an anemic crowd for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who took the stage about 15 minutes later.

Paul's 35-minute speech was standard fare for the libertarian, who spoke at length about the need to restore liberty by drastically cutting spending, understanding the monetary system, and auditing the Federal Reserve.

He spent little time recapping an economic plan he released Monday, just ahead of the Republican debate. In the plan, Paul called for cutting five federal departments, returning to 2006 spending levels, and taking other measures to cut $1 trillion in federal spending.

In a nod to his Nevada audience, Paul talked about the importance of state's rights by using an example of a controversial proposal to create a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain.

If the states has more power, Paul said, "you wouldn't have to be subject to the other 49 states coming along and saying oh, we own a lot of other land out there in Nevada, we don't know what to do with this nuclear waste, so the 49 other states decide oh, lets dump it in Nevada."

In addition to the multitude of federal regulations Paul would do away with, he also told the audience there were too many laws, which has led to an increase in the number of people in the prison system.

"We don't need that many prisoners," he said. "What we need is a lot more self-responsibility and the understanding that we don't need 100,000 federal bureaucrats breathing down our neck."

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.