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Will GOP debate be sidetracked by Herman Cain sexual harassment allegations?

The Republican debate Wednesday is supposed to focus on the economy. It’s likely, though, that Herman Cain's sexual assault allegations will dog him throughout the debate.

By Staff Writer / November 9, 2011

GOP presidential candidates businessman Herman Cain shakes hands with Texas Governor Rick Perry as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney looks on at the start of the CNN Western Republican debate in Las Vegas, Nevada in October.

Richard Brian/Reuters

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The Republican debate Wednesday is supposed to focus on the economy.

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Against the Michigan backdrop of rapid foreclosures and 11.1 percent unemployment, it’s an appropriate theme.

But it’s also the first debate since the sexual-harassment scandal surrounding GOP candidate Herman Cain first emerged. And that’s the issue sparking the most interest.

It’s uncertain whether any debate questions will raise the the allegations directly (although it seems likely), but it’s almost certain to come up. Especially now that Karen Kraushaar went public with her allegations Tuesday night, the second accuser to do so. 

Here are a few things to watch tonight:

How will Cain’s fellow nominees react to his scandal?

This is the big question: Do they attack him directly, or give him the benefit of the doubt?

“There are costs to both,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. “You tackle him, you’re going to alienate his people … If you say nothing, you’re going to be the subject of a lot of criticism too ... It’s heads you lose, tails you lose, but you have to pick heads or tails.”

Already, some of the candidates have begun to address Mr. Cain’s troubles in interviews and public statements.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Tuesday broached Sharon Bialek's allegations against Cain, though he declined to say whether he believed them.

“I don’t want to suppose truth or lack of truth,” he said in an interview on ABC. “I just think it’s important to recognize that a number of women have come forward with concerns; this woman’s charges are particularly disturbing and they’re serious.”

GOP candidate and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman also touched on the Cain scandal – and the distraction it’s become for the Republican primary race – in an interview with the Associated Press. “Only Herman Cain can address the issues before him,” Governor Huntsman said. “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.”

Still, Cain’s rivals have so far refrained from openly jumping on him or calling for him to withdraw from the race. As a frontrunner, who has polled at about 25  percent in recent weeks, Cain has many supporters that the other candidates are now wooing.

A safe way to approach it, says Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz, might be to focus “less on the allegations themselves and character, and more: ‘Do you want to take a chance on someone as our nominee when you have these questions out there and this could come back to haunt us in the general election.’” 

Who will benefit the most if this scandal brings down Cain?

While this question is unlikely to be answered in tonight’s debate, look for clues.

For months, Republicans have been hunting for an alternative to Mr. Romney who, while a steady frontrunner, seems to lack true conservative credentials to some.

Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain have all auditioned for the spot, but the first two have watched their campaigns fizzle and their poll numbers fall, and Cain seems likely to follow in the wake of the scandal.

Perhaps the person of most interest is Newt Gingrich, who has watched his own numbers slowly climb recently, into the low double digits, and who has been putting in solid debate performances.

Public Policy Polling surveys over the weekend showed the former House Speaker now running ahead of Romney in Ohio and Mississippi, and tied with him for the lead in an Iowa district, and he was the second choice of Cain supporters in the three places that PPP polled.

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