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GOP Michigan Debate: Auto Industry, Herman Cain Likely Topics

Sue McQueen displays her support for GOP presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul outside the debate venue, Rochester, Mich., Nov. 9, 2011.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Sue McQueen displays her support for GOP presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul outside the debate venue, Rochester, Mich., Nov. 9, 2011.

When the Republican presidential candidates meet Wednesday evening in Michigan for their ninth debate (it feels like there've been many more than that) the main topic up for discussion is supposed to be the economy.

But is there anyone who expects that the travails of Herman Cain won't be a subtopic?

The former Godfather Pizza CEO's flat-tax plan encountered severe turbulence at the last debate and it is likely to experience more during the encounter at Oakland University outside Detroit.

Cain should experience some added buffeting, however, due to the sexual harassment charges that have dominated coverage of the Republican presidential campaign in the last week. Indeed, this is the first debate to occur since the scandal broke.

It actually should be fairly easy for the CNBC moderators to introduce the scandal into the debate scheduled to start at 8 pm ET.

They could ask Mitt Romney the following, for instance: "Last week you introduced your fiscal plan to reduce deficits and the debt. But almost no one paid attention because of the Cain sex harassment scandal. How can you get your fiscal message across to voters so long as the Cain scandal overshadows it?" See how simple it is?

So we can expect the Cain harassment scandal and his response to same to get at least a few minutes during the debate. And we expect that Cain will, naturally, do whatever he can to change the subject.

With the debate occurring at a school just outside Detroit, the comeback of the U.S. auto industry should be high up on the list of topics.

What could make for some interesting moments is how Romney and the others on stage deal with their opposition of the federal bailouts for GM and Chrysler.

Those bailouts are credited with saving the U.S. auto industry and hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect jobs.

Romney, just as an example, has said he would have allowed the car makers enter the normal bankruptcy process.

But as many people in Michigan know, that would have been tantamount to a death sentence for the automakers. Many experts said it would have been virtually impossible for the companies to obtain the private financing for restructuring which means they're right, the Michigan the candidates will be in tonight would have been a far different, and not necessarily better, place.

That being said, the debate is something like a homecoming for Romney whose father was a Michigan governor governor an chief executive of the defunct AMC car company.

Thus we should expect to see Romney, who has been mostly cruising through the debates being the veteran presidential campaigner he is, to likely do more of the same since on what should feel like his home turf.

For the other candidates — Texas Gov. Rick Perry; former House speaker Newt Gingrich; Rep. Ron Paul of Texas; Rep. Michele Bachmann; Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, and Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, the debate is mostly one more chance to try to get hit by lightning while the time to do so dwindles.

For most of them at this stage, that would mean trying to win over the anti-Romney voters who went to Cain in large numbers.

This is where, once again, the sexual harassment scandal could come in handy again because it raises doubts about Cain's viability.

Meanwhile, as you watch the debate, you may want to consider if as something of a reality show. That's how Jennifer Collins, a reporter for American Public Media described the debates in a recent report.

An excerpt from her report:

COLLINS: Rita Kirk is a political consultant and a professor at Southern Methodist University. As the campaign gets underway, political debates are becoming major events. They're unpredictable. They've got rowdy audiences — and even rowdier candidates.

KIRK:Week after week, we go back to see how they're doing this week and what has changed.

LARRY NOVENSTERN:It's like train-wreck television. They want to see crashes.

COLLINS: Larry Novenstern is with Orion Trading, an ad-buying firm. He says those crashes are no accident — they're straight out of the reality show playbook.

NOVENSTERN:Producers are using that script in their head to come up with the most inflammatory ways to get viewers.

COLLINS: And they're getting them. A recent debate on CNN brought in 10 times the viewers who typically show up for primetime cable news. As for revenue, Novenstern says a 30-second commercial during the debates might bring in five times the usual fee. Little wonder, there are more than 20 debates on the calendar and more added all the time.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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