On a day when the Dow dropped almost 400 points, and in a host state with double-digit unemployment, the Republican presidential candidates in their ninth debate forum Wednesday night forfeited the animosities of past meetings in favor of a substantive discussion of the economy. The topic allowed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to shine during the face-off in Rochester, Mich., and it took some of the heat off businessman Herman Cain, who has dominated political headlines over the past 10 days amid allegations of sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, still struggling to regain his footing in the polls and mount an effective challenge to rival Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry stumbled notably when he suggested he would cut government spending by folding three federal agencies.
In what’s bound to be the evening’s most-watched video clip, Governor Perry mentioned the Departments of Education and Commerce, and then, when pressed, couldn’t remember the third element of his proposal. He turned to Rep. Ron Paul of Texas for guidance. Mr. Paul offered up the Environmental Protection Agency, but that wasn’t right.
“Oops,” Perry said with an air of complacency – and embarrassment. The Department of Energy had eluded him.
The debate, which comes two months before Republican voters first caucus in Iowa and then head to the polls in New Hampshire, seemed to reorient the field to conventional wisdom. Mr. Romney out front, Mr. Cain – despite the seriousness of the charges against him, leveled by four women, two of whom have gone public – hanging on, and Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. unable to distinguish themselves. Three others – Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – also participated, but who if anyone will emerge as an alternative to the practical front-runner remains unclear.
The issues-focused shape of the conversation, which began with a discussion of the US role in the looming Italian debt crisis, suited Romney, who led the private equity firm Bain Capital for a quarter-century. He offered several firm, fluid answers, and unlike some of his fellow nominees, didn’t struggle with the details. American leaders, he said, need to focus energy on growing the domestic economy and paying down debt – or in four or five years, Romney cautioned, the United States will face a similar situation.
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“Europe is able to take care of their own problems,” he said. “We don’t want to try to step in and bail out their banks and bail out their governments. They have the capacity to deal with that themselves. They’re a very large economy.”
Mr. Huntsman agreed, suggesting the focus at home should be on creating smaller banks, mitigating the domination of the six bigger institutions whose assets include two-thirds of the gross domestic product.
“As long as we have banks that are too big to fail in this country we’re going to catch the contagion and it’s going to hurt us,” he said.
It took about 20 minutes for co-moderator Maria Bartiromo to ask Cain if, given the allegations of sexual impropriety leveled against him, he offers the kind of leadership and character the American people seek in their president. She was booed by the audience at Oakland University as she questioned him.
“The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations,” Cain said, prompting applause. “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 thousands who would say none of that sort of activity ever came from Herman Cain.”
Supporters, he said, are weighing in on the matter by opening their wallets for his cause. “Over the last nine days the voters have voted with their dollars, and they say they don’t care about the character assassination. They care about leadership and getting this economy growing and all of the other problems we face.”
Perhaps seeking a brawl between the candidates who are neck and neck in national surveys, co-moderator John Harwood then asked Romney if, given his executive experience, he would hire someone mired in the controversy Cain is facing. Mr. Harwood, too, was booed by audience members.
“Herman Cain is the person to respond to these questions,” Romney said. “He just did. The people in this room and across this country can make their own assessment. I’m not going to answer.”
Romney, who has been plagued by an enthusiasm deficit among the party faithful for lacking deep conservative credentials, won cheers for his answer. It seemed a pivot point in a contest that has so far been underscored by a search for an alternative to Romney.
Also dogged by the flip-flopper label for backing health-care reform as governor and changing his public position on abortion, among other issues, Romney was asked by the moderator why he had also shifted his stance on the auto industry bailout. He took advantage of the opportunity to mention a series of lifelong loyalties that should, he suggested, convey strength of character and commitment. He deemed himself “a man of steadiness and constancy.”
“I’ve been married to the same woman for 25 – I’ll get in trouble – for 42 years,” he said. “I’ve been in the same church my entire life. I worked at the same company, Bain, for 25 years, and I left that to go off and help save the Olympic Games. I think it’s outrageous the Obama campaign continues to push this idea when you have in the Obama administration the most political presidency we’ve seen in modern history.”
Repealing the Obama health-care reform law was a top priority for most of the panelists, including Ms. Bachmann, who said Americans should be able to buy whatever insurance plan they want with tax-free money. She also said she backs medical malpractice reform.
Several candidates, Mr. Gingrich included, said they’d delegate the responsibility for administration of Medicaid, the federal health insurance program for the poor, to the states. Mr. Santorum said he introduced the first health savings accounts bill during his stint in Congress.
“I was leading on that before anyone else was even talking about it,” he said.
And Cain, when asked for how he’d handle health care following a repeal of the Obama administration’s initiative, said a bill stalled in Congress specifies how Americans would get their health insurance.
“Princess Nancy,” he said, referring to Democrat and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, now the minority leader, “sent it to committee and it stayed there, and it stayed there it never came out.” Cain didn’t outline the details of that proposal, however. And Cain found himself fielding questions from a CNBC anchor and others immediately following the debate about whether for a man with a series of sexual harassment allegations threatening to derail his candidacy, he should refer to America's top-ranking female politician in a loaded fashion.
The event was held in Michigan, where unemployment is 11.1 percent, perhaps providing even more urgency to a discussion about whether public companies have the responsibility to also create jobs – or if making money should be the primary goal.
“The right thing for America is to have profitable enterprises that can hire people,” Romney said. “...What we have in Washington today is a president and an administration that doesn’t like business.”