Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, reacts to comments by businessman… (Mark Blinch, Reuters )
Reporting from Rochester, Mich. — The Republican presidential candidates met Wednesday night on a Michigan debate stage to address the most crucial issue facing the American people: the worrisome economy. But the session may be best remembered as the one that provoked a painful gaffe by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry, who struggled in his previous debate performances, was talking about the three departments that he would cut to curb the size of the federal government. He named two — Education and Commerce — but for an excruciating period searched his mind for the third, as competitors tried to help him out.
CNBC reporter John Harwood, one of the debate moderators, pressed him: "You can't name the third one?" he asked.
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"I can't," Perry replied. "The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops."
Later in the debate, Perry remembered the answer: Energy. Damage done, he made a rare post-debate appearance before reporters to acknowledge his difficulty.
"I stepped in it, man," the governor said. "Yeah, it was embarrassing. Of course it was."
The moment stood out in a mostly placid two-hour session, eclipsing a brief discussion of the sexual harassment allegations against candidate Herman Cain that have consumed the campaign for more than a week.
Twenty minutes into the nationally broadcast debate, he was asked to address the charges. Cain, who has defiantly denied any wrongdoing, delivered a spirited defense.
"The American people deserve better than somebody being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations," Cain said to a roar of approval from the debate audience. "I value my character and my integrity more than anything else. And for every one person that comes forward with a false accusation, there are probably — there are thousands who would say none of that sort of activity ever came from Herman Cain."
Given a chance to weigh in, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — who is tied with Cain in some opinion polls — demurred.
The debate was the ninth of the GOP presidential contest and the first since a raucous session last month in Las Vegas, a forum dominated by several raised-voice, finger-pointing exchanges. This time, in contrast, the most spirited exchanges involved sharp questions from the moderators and the discontent — registered as boos and hisses — from the audience over the Cain controversy being broached.
Pressed about his reputation for bending to suit the prevailing political winds, Romney was asked to explain how voters can be persuaded his positions are rooted in principle.
"I think people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy," Romney said. "I don't think you are going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do."
Given a chance to attack Romney as a shape-shifter — as he has throughout the campaign — Perry this time ignored his opponent. "The next president of the United States needs to send a powerful message not just to the people of this country but around the world that America is going to be America again," Perry said.
Meeting on the campus of Oakland University for a forum sponsored by the Michigan Republican Party and CNBC, the candidates spent most of the debate discussing their plans to spur economic growth. Unemployment in Michigan is 11.1%, higher than the national average but down from a peak of 14.1% in the fall of 2009.
Economists credit the federal bailout of GM and Chrysler with saving tens of thousands of jobs in the state, and Romney, a Michigan native, and others were forced to explain their opposition to the bailout. Democrats had placed advertisements ahead of the debate reminding Michigan voters of the candidates' positions.
Romney insisted that he did not favor the companies' demise, as his critics imply, but rather a more structured bankruptcy proceeding that would have lessened the role of the federal government. "We have capital markets and bankruptcy," Romney said. "It works in this country."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. seconded that notion. "The people in this country are sick and tired of seeing taxpayer dollars go toward bailouts, and we're not going to have it anymore in this country," he said.
The candidates generally agreed on the need to lower corporate taxes and cut regulations.
Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan, the focal point of much criticism the last time the candidates met, came in for much easier treatment this time. The proposal would jettison the current tax code and replace it with a flat 9% income tax, a 9% sales tax and a 9% business tax. Asked what would prevent Washington from seeking further revenue, Cain drew cheers from the audience when he responded: "Tax codes don't raise taxes. Politicians do."
The former Godfather's Pizza chief executive maintained that his tax plan would be so popular, the American people would never stand for its revision.