ROCHESTER, Mich. — Republican presidential candidates will debate Wednesday night for the first time since Herman Cain became controversial, Rick Perry unveiled his optional flat-tax plan and Mitt Romney explained in detail how he'd reduce budget deficits.
Cain, who scheduled a news conference Tuesday to defend himself against accusations of aggressive sexual behavior by several women, will be watched most closely. Can he, analysts are asking, regain the stature and popularity that put him at or near the top of most Republican presidential preference polls in recent weeks?
"People are still getting to know him, and the allegations are one of the most likely things people know about Herman Cain at the moment," said Matt Grossmann, an assistant professor of political science at Michigan State University.
Eight Republican candidates will spar for two hours, starting at 8 p.m. EST, at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., a Detroit suburb. CNBC will televise the debate.
They're supposed to talk about the economy in a state that's suffered more than most. Michigan's September unemployment rate was 11.1 percent, 2 percentage points above the national average.
"We've had what seems like a recession for 12 years," said Tom Shields, the president of Marketing Resource Group Inc., a Michigan political-consulting firm.
Since the last GOP debate, on Oct. 18, Romney and Cain have remained at or near the top of national Republican preference polls. Perry's been sinking, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has maintained solid support around 10 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has begun to climb to low double digits.
Cain, dogged by sexual-harassment accusations, is stumbling. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken last Wednesday through Saturday found that 35 percent said they viewed Cain negatively — double last month's number.
The poll was taken after a report Oct. 30 by the Capitol Hill newspaper Politico that when Cain headed the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, two employees accused him of aggressive sexual behavior. He kept the story going with his repeatedly changing account of what happened, saying first that he was unaware of any financial settlement with the women, then later saying a settlement had been reached.
Last week, the Associated Press reported an account by a third accuser, and a fourth surfaced Monday, Sharon Bialek, the first to allow her name and face to be public.
Cain continues to deny any misconduct.
"There is not an ounce of truth to all these allegations," Cain said early Tuesday on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live."
However, Douglas Koopman, a professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he thought the controversy had damaged the candidate. Cain, he added, "has auditioned for the not-Romney position, and now there are other legitimate Republicans out there," he said.
Gingrich, in particular, has seen his standing in polls rise from below 5 percent to 10-12 percent in the past few weeks.
Perry has a different challenge: demonstrating gravitas. He's dropped far from the top tier of national polls. The Perry camp hoped that his tax plan would give him a boost among conservatives. The proposal would give taxpayers the option of using the current tax system or paying 20 percent of their incomes after deducting $12,500 per person, state and local taxes and charitable contributions.
"I don't think this is going to catch on," Koopman said. "For most people it's not all that much simpler than the system is now."
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, starts with a big advantage in Michigan, which holds its primary Feb. 28. His father, George Romney, was the governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969, an auto company executive and a Nixon administration Cabinet member, and he's still remembered fondly here.
Mitt Romney won Michigan's 2008 Republican primary despite a spirited challenge from Arizona Sen. John McCain. He won largely because "Romney said we've got to get the manufacturing jobs back. McCain said the jobs weren't coming back," Shields said.
If the race is still volatile by the time Michigan votes, Romney could get some momentum here.
Last Friday, Romney offered a detailed plan for how he'd reduce federal spending — now about 24 percent of the gross domestic product — to 20 percent.
He pledged to make steep cuts in popular programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, foreign aid to certain countries and more. He said he wouldn't raise taxes.
President Barack Obama's campaign fired back, saying, "The inevitable result of Romney's arbitrary limits on federal spending would be deep cuts to education, infrastructure, innovation and clean energy," among other programs.
So far, Romney's efforts to endear himself to die-hard conservatives don't appear to be working. An Oct. 25-31 Quinnipiac University Polling Institute survey found Cain the choice of 43 percent of tea party backers, the grass-roots conservative movement. Romney got 14 percent support from them, followed by Gingrich at 13 percent.
"Romney's biggest threat is still when (rival candidates) start to drop out," said David Dulio, the chairman of the political science department at Oakland University. "The conservative vote is split among a bunch of candidates."
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