Mitt Romney, left, and Rick Perry listen to Herman Cain respond to a question… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )
Reporting from Rochester, Mich. — Herman Cain delivered a spirited — and largely unchallenged — defense Wednesday night against sexual harassment accusations in a placid Republican presidential debate that saw the candidates repeatedly ducking the chance to engage one another.
“The American people deserve better than somebody being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations,” Cain said to a roar from the debate audience.
Given a chance to weigh in on the controversy surrounding Cain, who has issued a series of contradictory statements about his allegedly boorish behavior, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney demurred.
“Herman Cain is the person to respond to these questions,” Romney said when asked by debate moderator John Harwood — to groans from the audience — whether he would keep Cain in charge of a corporation he was running. “He just did.”
With that, the issue that has consumed the GOP presidential race for nearly two weeks became a brief and passing footnote.
Cain, a former corporate chief and the co-leader in some opinion polls, entered the evening shadowed by accusations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate actions involving women during his years as head of the National Restaurant Assn., a Washington trade group.
In vehemently denying the charges, Cain has accused various entities and interests — among them rival Rick Perry — of bringing the allegations to public notice. But standing just a few feet away from the Texas governor, Cain said nothing to his opponent. Perry was also silent on the subject, which came up 20 minutes into the two-hour session.
The Texan has plunged in the polls as a result of his shaky debate performances, and he may not have helped his cause Wednesday night. At one point, discussing his plans to cut federal spending, he vowed to eliminate three departments, citing education and commerce. Harwood pressed him: “You can’t remember the third one?”
“I cannot,” Perry responded.
At one point during the exchange, Perry said, “Oops.”
Later in the debate, he remembered that he wanted to also eliminate the Energy Department.
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 between Romney and his rivals, chief among them Perry.
This time, in stark 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.
Harwood pressed Romney about his reputation for bending to suit the prevailing political winds, asking how voters can be persuaded that his positions are rooted in something more than ambition.
“I think people know me pretty well,” Romney responded. “I think people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy. I don't think you are going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do.”
Given a chance to respond, 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.
The debate on the campus of Oakland University in the Detroit suburbs was co-sponsored by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party. It was intended to focus on the economy, far and away the top concern of voters, and, with rare exception, it did.
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. All eight candidates onstage opposed it, a fact Democrats pointed out in advertisements placed ahead of Wednesday night’s debate.
Romney insisted that he did not favor the demise of the companies, 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.”
Cain's so-called 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% levy on income, a 9% tax on sales and a 9% tax on business.
Asked what would prevent Washington, seeking further revenues, from turning it into a 19-19-19 plan, Cain drew a roar of approval from the audience when he responded, “Tax codes don't raise taxes. Politicians do.”