Washington, D.C. (AP) - The economy is supposed to be the focus when Republican presidential contenders share a debate stage for the first time since allegations of sexual impropriety rocked
Republican Herman Cain's presidential bid.
But as the candidates gather Wednesday night in ailing Michigan,
Cain's troubles are certain to loom large over the Oakland University debate hall -- whether or not the rivals address the accusations directly during the two-hour face off.
With voting in the GOP nomination race set to begin in fewer
than 60 days, Republican officials and presidential contenders
alike are growing increasingly frustrated that the political
conversation has been hijacked by the furor surrounding Cain.
"Only Herman Cain can address the issues before him. In the
meantime it's sucking all the oxygen out of the room, depriving the
people of this country from a conversation about the issues that
really do matter," Republican contender and former Utah Gov. Jon
Huntsman told The Associated Press Tuesday. "That's the price we
pay when these things happen."
Like the rest of Cain's opponents, Huntsman did not call for him
to leave the presidential contest or rush to his defense,
illustrating the sensitivity -- and the unpredictability -- of the
escalating situation. In a multi-candidate field, there's no
guarantee that one candidate's demise will be any single
Even so, some of Cain rivals -- namely fellow conservatives who
are struggling to gain ground against better-known, better-funded
rivals -- sense an opportunity to steal support away from the former
businessman should he implode after recently emerging as the
strongest challenger to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in
some polls. At the same time, Romney's steady-as-it-goes campaign -- focused primarily on the general election and President Barack
Obama -- could benefit from an extended distraction as the political
attacks are focused elsewhere.
Romney is considered the man to beat in the evolving Republican
contest to face Obama next fall.
The other candidates have had mixed success jockeying to emerge
as the Romney alternative for several months. It looked as if
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was rising earlier in the summer,
but she faded after the brief rise of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. After
Perry stumbled through recent debates, Cain took his place near the
top of many early state polls and national surveys. With Cain's
political future now uncertain, some see potential in former House
Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has a history of personal problems as
"The more chaos and distractions there are in the rest of the
field, the better it is for Mitt Romney," said GOP strategist Todd
Harris, who is not aligned with any presidential campaign. "While
the political world's attention has been shifting around from
Bachmann to Perry to Cain to Gingrich, Romney has been slowly and
methodically putting a campaign together that's built to last."
The candidates, Romney included, publicly said they would like
to steer the conversation back to substantive issues.
In an interview with ABC News and Yahoo! News, the former
Massachusetts governor targeted Obama and his stewardship of the
"The last thing this president and his team want to do is to talk about their record," Romney said. "They failed."
Yet he also called the allegations against Cain "particularly disturbing."
"These are serious allegations and they're going to have to be
addressed," Romney said.
Sharon Bialek, a former National Restaurant Association employee, accused Cain this week of unwanted sexual advances more than a decade ago on a night they met to discuss her job prospects. She is the fourth woman to allege sexual impropriety, but the first to speak publicly.
"I don't even know who this lady is," Cain told ABC and Yahoo!
"It's a distraction from the things we ought to talk about, which
is this economy, energy independence, cutting spending, as well as
getting this country back on track."
Still, even when the candidates seemingly try to stay focused on
the issues, the hot topic of the day always seems to pop up.
On Saturday, Gingrich and Cain met near Houston to debate policy
The event was designed to be exclusively on the economy but,
toward the end, Gingrich lobbed an easy question to his rival: What
had surprised him most about running for president?
Without hesitation, Cain used the opportunity to launch into a
tirade about the media -- a frequent punching bag usually excites
the Republican electorate. Cain didn't explicitly mention the
sexual harassment allegations and the media's covering of it, but
the context was clear.
Later, Gingrich refused to comment on the allegations, saying only: "I'm glad to talk about policy."
Beyond Cain's struggles, there are substantive issues to discuss
Wednesday, the first time the rivals were squaring off in more than
Romney last week released a detailed plan to cut federal
spending by $500 billion in his term as president. He would strip
federal subsidies from Amtrak and deeply cut the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Romney would also
fundamentally re-shape Medicare by introducing a voucher system, or
"premium supports," to the popular health insurance program for
His spending strategy drew sharp criticism from Perry's campaign
last week. And other candidates, like Texas Rep. Ron Paul, favor
far deeper cuts. With the Cain distraction, however, it remains to
be seen whether Romney's opponents can quickly and effectively
resurrect what had been an increasingly aggressive line of attack
Michigan Republicans, meanwhile, fear they will lose an
opportunity to call attention to their state's economic problems.
"It is a distraction for what could be a very good press day for Michigan and Michigan Republicans," said Saul Anuzis, a Michigan-based member of the National Republican Committee. "I
think it's in every candidate's interests to stay focused on the
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)