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.
Sharon Bialek, a former National Restaurant Association employee, accused Cain this week of unwanted sexual advances more than a decade ago on a night they met to discuss her job prospects. She is the fourth woman to allege sexual impropriety, but the first to speak publicly.
"I don't even know who this lady is," Cain told ABC and Yahoo! "It's a distraction from the things we ought to talk about, which is this economy, energy independence, cutting spending, as well as getting this country back on track."
Still, even when the candidates seemingly try to stay focused on the issues, the hot topic of the day always seems to pop up.
On Saturday, Gingrich and Cain met near Houston to debate policy issues.
The event was designed to be exclusively on the economy but, toward the end, Gingrich lobbed an easy question to his rival: What had surprised him most about running for president?
Without hesitation, Cain used the opportunity to launch into a tirade about the media — a frequent punching bag usually excites the Republican electorate. Cain didn't explicitly mention the sexual harassment allegations and the media's covering of it, but the context was clear.
Later, Gingrich refused to comment on the allegations, saying only: "I'm glad to talk about policy."
Beyond Cain's struggles, there are substantive issues to discuss Wednesday, the first time the rivals were squaring off in more than three weeks.Comment on this story
Romney last week released a detailed plan to cut federal spending by $500 billion in his term as president. He would strip federal subsidies from Amtrak and deeply cut the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Romney would also fundamentally re-shape Medicare by introducing a voucher system, or "premium supports," to the popular health insurance program for the elderly.
His spending strategy drew sharp criticism from Perry's campaign last week. And other candidates, like Texas Rep. Ron Paul, favor far deeper cuts. With the Cain distraction, however, it remains to be seen whether Romney's opponents can quickly and effectively resurrect what had been an increasingly aggressive line of attack against him.
Michigan Republicans, meanwhile, fear they will lose an opportunity to call attention to their state's economic problems.
"It is a distraction for what could be a very good press day for Michigan and Michigan Republicans," said Saul Anuzis, a Michigan-based member of the National Republican Committee. "I think it's in every candidate's interests to stay focused on the issues."