WASHINGTON — The economy is supposed to be the focus when Republican presidential contenders share a debate stage for the first time since allegations of sexual impropriety rocked Republican Herman Cain's presidential bid.
But as the candidates gather Wednesday night in ailing Michigan, Cain's troubles are certain to loom large over the Oakland University debate hall — whether or not the rivals address the accusations directly during the two-hour face off.
With voting in the GOP nomination race set to begin in fewer than 60 days, Republican officials and presidential contenders alike are growing increasingly frustrated that the political conversation has been hijacked by the furor surrounding Cain.
"Only Herman Cain can address the issues before him. 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," Republican contender and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman told The Associated Press Tuesday. "That's the price we pay when these things happen."
Like the rest of Cain's opponents, Huntsman did not call for him to leave the presidential contest or rush to his defense, illustrating the sensitivity — and the unpredictability — of the escalating situation. In a multi-candidate field, there's no guarantee that one candidate's demise will be any single candidate's gain.
Even so, some of Cain rivals — namely fellow conservatives who are struggling to gain ground against better-known, better-funded rivals — sense an opportunity to steal support away from the former businessman should he implode after recently emerging as the strongest challenger to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in some polls. At the same time, Romney's steady-as-it-goes campaign — focused primarily on the general election and President Barack Obama — could benefit from an extended distraction as the political attacks are focused elsewhere.
Romney is considered the man to beat in the evolving Republican contest to face Obama next fall.
The other candidates have had mixed success jockeying to emerge as the Romney alternative for several months. It looked as if Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was rising earlier in the summer, but she faded after the brief rise of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. After Perry stumbled through recent debates, Cain took his place near the top of many early state polls and national surveys. With Cain's political future now uncertain, some see potential in former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has a history of personal problems as well.
"The more chaos and distractions there are in the rest of the field, the better it is for Mitt Romney," said GOP strategist Todd Harris, who is not aligned with any presidential campaign. "While the political world's attention has been shifting around from Bachmann to Perry to Cain to Gingrich, Romney has been slowly and methodically putting a campaign together that's built to last."
The candidates, Romney included, publicly said they would like to steer the conversation back to substantive issues.
In an interview with ABC News and Yahoo! News, the former Massachusetts governor targeted Obama and his stewardship of the economy.
"The last thing this president and his team want to do is to talk about their record," Romney said. "They failed."
Yet he also called the allegations against Cain "particularly disturbing."
"These are serious allegations and they're going to have to be addressed," Romney said.
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