Texas Gov. Rick Perry suffered another severe blow in his campaign for the Republican nomination for president on Wednesday night, stumbling to recall the names of the three departments of the federal government that he said he wanted to eliminate.
Meanwhile, frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, used his return to the heartland to attack the government bailout of the auto industry, which the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research says saved over one million jobs.
Beyond Perry’s flub or Romney’s snub, there was one big winner during the debate. Former Godfather Pizza chief executive officer Herman Cain issued a strong defense of his personal character after being questioned by CNBC anchorwoman Maria Bartiromo about sexual harassment allegations that have surfaced in recent days.
After the boos from crowded auditorium on the campus of Oakland University subsided, Cain drew loud applause when he charged “the American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations.” Then, in a clever allusion to his 9-9-9 tax plan, he said, “Over the last nine days, the voters have voted with their dollars. They don’t care about character assassination. They care about leadership and all the problems we face.”
The exchange was emblematic of how most of the debates have gone this pre-primary season. Just as Cain appeared indifferent to how accusations of sexual harassment might be playing with women swing voters across the country, each of the candidates articulated positions that mostly appealed to the narrow slice of an increasingly conservative electorate that votes in Republican primaries.
The candidate positions differed in only a few instances. They treated their competitors gingerly, and they aimed most of their fire at President Obama.
One area where major differences did emerge, however, was in how a Republican administration might handle trade relations with China. Romney, with backing from most of the other candidates on stage, called for branding China a currency manipulator and seeking World Trade Organization sanctions. Former Utah Gov. and China ambassador Jon Huntsman, however, called that approach “pandering.”
“That doesn’t work,” he said. “Start(ing) a trade war . . . is not a good idea.”
While Huntsman’s nuanced position might have won him support among exporters, he probably lost support in the banking industry, which is usually a major pillar of support for Republican candidates. He called for breaking up big banks like Goldman Sachs so they would no longer be “too big to fail” institutions. He even suggested slapping a tax on them. “We ought to charge some fee to the banks to mitigate the risks that the taxpayers are carrying,” he said.
Perry’s flub came in an effort to compete with libertarian Ron Paul, the Senator from Kentucky, who called for cutting $1 trillion a year from the federal budget and eliminating five government departments. Perry tried to match that by calling for the elimination of three departments, “commerce, education and . . .” After hesitating for several seconds, he shrugged and said, “oops.”
The embarrassing moment, reminiscent of President Gerald Ford’s gaff in 1976 when he called Communist Poland a free country, will no doubt be endlessly replayed on television as the campaign heads for its voting phase, which begins in January. Many pundits immediately branded the flub a final nail in Perry’s ill-fated campaign. Later Perry Tweeted, "I'm glad I had my boots on because I really stepped in it tonight."
None of the minor candidates who are trailing in the polls was able to break out of the polling doldrums. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., for instance, came out against the two percent payroll tax cut that has been in effect since the first year. She claimed it was partially responsible for Social Security running in the red this year, even though, by law, all the money was replaced in the Social Security Trust Fund by the general fund of the government.
The biggest question raised by the Michigan debate was whether Romney’s stance on the auto bailout will ultimately hurt him should he win the nomination and begins to move to the center. The Midwest is still hurting economically, but one of its bright spots has been the partial recovery of the auto industry that is now underway.
While the bailout was originally slated to cost $80 billion and the Congressional Budget Office at one point estimated a loss of $40 billion by aiding the industry, the government reported in July that it had only spent $14 billion on the bailout after Chrysler paid back its loan. Moreover, it still owns a sizable stake in General Motors.