Larry Kudlow

There were three winners in the CNBC debate: Herman Cain, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Gov. Rick Perry was the obvious loser because of his memory lapse.

The guy with the toughest job on Wednesday night was Cain, who has been hammered by sexual-harassment charges. He needed a strong performance to put him back on message with his 9-9-9 tax plan and pro-business, free-enterprise views. I give him first prize, simply because he performed so well. He had the most to gain and the most to lose. He gained.

How these sex-harassment charges play out remains to be seen. And how much damage they will do to the Cain campaign is an unknown. But its noteworthy that a new Rasmussen poll for the Florida Republican primary shows Cain at 30 percent, Romney at 24 percent and Gingrich at 19 percent. At the moment, Cain is still at or near the top of the pack. So far, its hard to find any Republican-voter migration away from Cain.

But the more interesting story might be Gingrich, who has surged into third place. When I interviewed him on Tuesday, the night before the debate, I asked him about 1 percent versus 99 percent, the class-warfare argument being propagated by President Obama and the Wall Street protesters. Gingrich replied: I am for 100 percent. I think this idea of 99 percent and 1 percent is (SET ITAL) grotesque European-socialist class-warfare bologna. (END ITAL) No one puts it that well.

And during the debate, Gingrich expanded on that theme. In a response to a question on the importance of profits in the economy, he bluntly complained that he has heard no one in the media ask, Whos going to pay for the park youre occupying if there are no businesses making a profit?

And his historical references to Henry Ford and Bill Gates working in garages to invent their breakthrough technologies -- were they part of the 1 percent or the 99 percent? -- were great examples of just how stupid and un-American class warfare really is.

But I dont think Gingrich or Romney are correct to back temporary payroll tax cuts, especially since Obama would pay for them with permanent tax hikes. CNBCs Rick Santelli correctly noted that those tax cuts are blowing a huge hole in Social Security. And I would add that they have virtually no incentive effect for job creation. So automatically endorsing them makes no sense. (Michele Bachmann won that round by opposing them.)

I also think Romney desperately needs a true pro-growth tax-reform plan. Cain has 9-9-9, Perry has a 20-20 optional flat tax, and Gingrich has a 15 percent optional flat tax. Romneys new budget and entitlement-reform plan is excellent. But he has not entered the flat-tax competition thats moving the GOP in the right direction on economic-growth incentives.

Larry Kudlow

Lawrence Kudlow is host of CNBC’s “The Kudlow Report,” which airs nightly from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.