Republican Herman Cain will try to move past an escalating sexual harassment controversy on Wednesday during a U.S. presidential debate on economic issues held in the hard-hit manufacturing state of Michigan.
The debate will be a homecoming for Cain’s rival Mitt Romney, who was born in Michigan and hopes to consolidate his status as the candidate-to-beat in the Republican race to choose a 2012 challenger to President Barack Obama.
The economic focus is likely to limit discussion of the harassment allegations by four women against Cain, which threaten to derail the former pizza executive’s White House campaign despite his denials.
But the controversy, which has lingered for more than a week, will be hard for voters to forget. Polls show it has eroded favorable voter perceptions of Cain without knocking him from his spot near the top of the pack with Romney so far.
“This debate is going to be about Herman Cain even if nothing is said about the harassment allegations all night,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said.
Cain’s rivals have tiptoed around the subject, trying to avoid looking like they are piling on. Romney and Newt Gingrich urged Cain on Tuesday to address the charges, which he did in a news conference where he repeated his denials and vowed they would not force him to withdraw.
Cain’s difficulties could open the door for one of the handful of other candidates battling for the allegiance of conservatives in hopes of becoming the clear alternative to the more moderate Romney in the Republican race.
“The whole Cain saga creates a real opportunity for one of the other anti-Romney candidates, someone like Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry, to shine,” O’Connell said.
So far conservatives have failed to coalesce around a single candidate. A series of conservative contenders — first U.S. congresswoman Michele Bachmann, then Perry and now Cain — has risen in polls to challenge Romney only to fall back.