The GOP's White House hopefuls met for their latest televised debate in a state that epitomizes America's struggling economy
As the Republican presidential candidates gathered Wednesday in Michigan, the day's market slide - the Dow Jones closing down 389 points - offered a sharp reminder of the local economic backdrop.
General Motors stock fell nearly 11 percent during the day. Ford Motor Company dropped almost 5 percent. Expect plenty of blame for the plight of industrial America to land tonight on President Obama.
It's the first time the Republican candidates have met since Oct. 18 in Las Vegas, a debate memorable for the testy exchange between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney over Romney's extended employment of a landscaping firm that employed illegal immigrants. Since, Perry has launched ads in Iowa but failed to recover significantly in the polls, and allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain have dominated political news for the last 10 days.
Cain got the first question but it was about the economy. Moderator Maria Bartiromo set the stage, asked about the Italian debt crisis and potential repercussions on the U.S.
The bellicosity of the last Republican presidential debate, three weeks ago in Las Vegas appears to have given way to a much more congenial session in Michigan. Gone are the acrid exchanges between candidates, replaced with statements of agreement on policy. No shoulder touches, either. If the emotional quotient injected into the race by the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain has altered anything among the candidates, it appears to have provided a caution flag against combustibility. Rick Santorum lightly dinged Mitt Romney over the latter's Massachusetts health care law, but other than the only tension during the debate's first 75 minutes erupted between the candidates and their reporter questioners.
In what might go down as one of the more embarrassing moments in presidential campaign history, Rick Perry cemented his reputation as a poor debater when he blanked about one of the three federal departments he wants to slash.
The Texas governor began by naming the Commerce Department and the Department of Education, but he stopped there.
"What's the third one there?" he asked, gazing at fellow Texan, Rep. Ron Paul.
Paul, standing next to him, appeared to suggest the Environment Protection Agency. But moderator John Harwood intervened.
"You can't name the third one?" Hardwood asked.
"I can't remember ..." he said. "I can't, the third one, I can't."
On his next turn speaking, Perry offered: "By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for." Hmm. The governor of Texas forgets energy?
Poor debate performances are credited with sinking Perry's campaign after he initially soared in the polls, but Tuesday's gaffe was his worst.
Cain on sexual harassment
At the outset of the debate, Bartiromo promised that it would focus "almost exclusively" on the economy. The inevitable detour, which came less than 30 minutes into the debate, prompted boos from the audience. When she asked Herman Cain about the sexual harassment charges against him, the embattled candidate reiterated his denials.
"The American people deserve better than someone being tried in court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations," said Cain, responding to a question over whether voters should support him after four women have accused him of sexual harassment.
"I valued my character and my integrity more than anything else," he added. "And for everyone one person that comes forward with false accusations, there are thousands who say none of that sort of action came from Herman Cain."
It was a characteristic Cain response since the news of the scandal broke last week - total refutation of any wrongdoing while calling his accusers liars. And the crowd seemed to support him. They cheered wildly after his responses.
Cain got an assist from Romney, kind of. Asked whether he would fire Cain, Romney stuttered before cat-calls from the audience rained on stage. He then said it would be up to the American people to make that judgment - not him.
Romney on the spot
Moderator John Harwood hit Romney head-on with the central question of Romney's campaign: whether Romney's political positions are rooted in something more deeply than electoral convenience. His initial question was of Romney's seeming flip-flop over the auto industry's plight, from imploring Washington to get involved, to penning a famous op-ed entitled, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," after the 2008 election, to later appearing to soft-pedal that approach.
Romney pivoted to his upbringing in Michigan, where his father was governor, then reiterated criticism of government intervention in the automakers' plight. "It was the wrong way to go. I said from the very beginning they should go through a managed bankruptcy process, a private bankruptcy process," Romney said, adding, "My plan, we would have had a private-sector bailout, with a private-sector restructuring ... as opposed to government playing its heavy hand."
Harwood followed up, calling Romney's apparent ideological flexibility "an issue of character." Romney replied, "I think people understand I'm a man of steadiness and constancy." As evdence, he cited the fact he has been married to the same women for 42 years and belonged to the same church - the Mormon church - his entire life, and worked for the same company, Bain Capital, for 25 years.