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

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

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.

Recommended: Newt Gingrich ethics investigation: 4 facts you haven't heard from him

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.

Mr. Gingrich, who has his own history of sexual scandal and infidelities, needs to tread lightly around Cain’s woes.

“He’s not going to be throwing any stones,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, noting that in Gingrich’s one-on-one debate with Cain over the weekend Gingrich was friendly and careful.

“For people who remember Newt’s history, it’s extremely ironic that he should be the guy to benefit from somebody else’s scandal,” Professor Pitney adds, though he believes Gingrich is the candidate most likely to do so.

Can Rick Perry reverse his decline?

The Texas governor enjoyed a few weeks of front-runner status when he first announced his candidacy – and then watched his campaign tank.

He still has the organization and the money in place. And Romney has largely treated Mr. Perry as his main rival – despite Perry's single-digit poll numbers and ignoring Cain's surge.

So could Cain’s woes give him another chance?

It’s possible. Though so far all his momentum seems to be going the wrong way, and debates aren’t his strength.

“It’s almost as though the people have made up their minds. They considered Perry, latched onto him for a while, but have sent him packing,” says Mr. Sabato.

In the debate, he needs to try to be clear and forceful without coming across as mean, as he did in his confrontation with Romney in the last debate.

“If he’s slow and careful, that will revive the charge that he’s hesitant,” says Pitney. “If he’s loose and fluid, that will remind people of his recent New Hampshire speech, which is not an image he wants to revive.”

One point of interest in the debate: Will Cain revive his charge that Perry’s camp sabotaged him and leaked the sexual-harassment claims?

How will the candidates address Rust Belt economic concerns?

Despite the enormous focus on the Cain scandal, this is still an economic debate, and the majority of the evening should be spent talking about real policy issues.

With the Michigan backdrop, expect extra attention to be paid to manufacturing and the long-term economic woes of states like Michigan and Ohio.

One question that’s almost sure to come up: the auto industry bailout in 2008, and Romney’s op-ed in the New York Times published shortly before headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

“It’ll be interesting to see what [Romney] says, and what the other candidates say,” says Bill Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics. Romney, he notes, has said that the headline misrepresented his argument, but he needs to speak both to his Michigan audience as well as national conservatives looking for any sign he might be flip-flopping.

As for the other candidates, “they’d love to take advantage of any weakness or misstep he makes, but with the Republican electorate, they’re kind of between a rock and a hard place,” Mr. Ballenger says.

Ballenger hopes that other Rust Belt economic questions will arise, but he worries that even with substantive debating, the attention and post-debate analysis will only focus on Cain.

“All this stuff with Herman Cain has blown everything else off the front page,” he says. “But they can’t sit around and debate that for an hour.”

 

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