ROCHESTER, Mich. — Together for the first time in three weeks, Republican presidential candidates assembled in ailing Michigan for a debate on how they would fix the economy. Also sure to come up Wednesday night: the past week's allegations of sexual impropriety that have rocked Herman Cain's campaign.
Since the candidates last met, the GOP nomination fight has been marked first by businessman Cain's rise in national polls and then the firestorm over accusations that he sexually harassed women during his time leading the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
With less than two months until voting begins in Iowa, Cain and Romney will be on stage at Oakland University with six rivals: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
But Cain's troubles threaten to overshadow a discussion, hosted by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party, that's supposed to center on fixing a struggling economy. In Michigan, 11.1 percent are unemployed and the once-thriving American auto industry had all but collapsed before the federal government stepped in.
But lately, it's been all about Cain. He's repeatedly tried to put the controversy to rest, doing interview after interview and finally holding a news conference Tuesday insisting that he would continue to stand alongside his rivals despite the accusations.
Cain's rivals have approached his troubles cautiously. In an interview with ABC News, however, Romney said the allegations were "particularly disturbing" and "serious."
"They're going to have to be addressed," Romney said.
Huntsman has said Cain should provide a full accounting of what happened and his situation is distracting attention from substantive issues.
Cain's insistence on staying in the race leaves his rivals answering such questions — about him — while trying to campaign as usual and focus on beating President Barack Obama.
The Democratic president stood outside a factory not far away last month and called government bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler a success that saved thousands of American jobs.
With Detroit — the Motor City whose fortunes have fallen with the decline of the auto industry — just a few miles from the debate site, GOP candidates also will have little choice but to explain their opposition to a government bailout that saved Chrysler and General Motors and the tens of thousands of jobs they provide.
All eight Republicans participating in the debate say they wouldn't have offered government loans to save the two auto giants.