ROCHESTER, Michigan (Reuters) - Herman Cain escaped serious damage in a presidential debate on Wednesday when Republican rivals held their fire over sexual harassment allegations that threaten to derail his 2012 White House bid.
Cain, a former pizza executive who leads some polls in the race, faced only one question about the accusations by four women dating to the late 1990s. Main rival Mitt Romney refused to wade into the controversy.
“The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations,” Cain said in the debate at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.
Cain has denied the harassment charges and noted the issue had not dented voter enthusiasm for his campaign to face President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the November 2012 election.
“They don’t care about character assassination, they care about leadership and getting the country going,” he said to cheers from the audience.
The allegations include one from a woman who said Cain groped her in 1997 when he was head of the National Restaurant Association.
The controversy has lingered for more than a week and eroded favorable voter perceptions of Cain, but he is still running close at the top of the pack with Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts.
Cain’s difficulties could open the door for one of the other candidates battling for the allegiance of conservatives in the hopes of becoming the clear alternative to the more moderate Romney.
Cain raised some eyebrows in the debate when he described former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy”, a remark he later said he regretted.
The moderator’s question about the allegations drew boos from the audience at the debate, which was focused on economic issues. Romney was cheered when he declined to answer when asked if he would hire an executive facing similar charges.
“Look, Herman Cain is the person to respond to these questions. He just did,” Romney said. “The people in this room and across the country can make their own assessment.”
But the most memorable moment of the debate belonged to Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has seen his poll standing plummet after several poor debate performances.
Perry had another flameout when he completely blanked on naming the third federal agency he wants to shut down. Despite helpful suggestions from some of his rivals, Perry could not name the third agency after Education and Commerce. “Sorry,” he said.
A little later in the debate he thought of the answer — the Department of Energy.
“Yeah, it was embarrassing, of course it was,” Perry told reporters in a rare post-debate appearance in the media room. “But people understand our conservative principles are what matter.”
Romney faced his own character question during the debate, rejecting accusations that have plagued him since his failed 2008 presidential campaign that he has flip-flopped on crucial issues including the U.S. auto bailout in 2009.
“I think people understand that I’m a man of steadiness and constancy,” Romney said. “I don’t think you are going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do.”
Romney’s past support for abortion rights and a healthcare mandate while governor of Massachusetts — he now opposes both — still makes him an object of suspicion for many social and religious conservatives.
Many of the Republican hopefuls denounced government bailouts for corporations and other countries and said they would not come to the financial rescue of Italy, which is struggling to bring its debt under control.
“It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s Wall Street or some corporate entity or some European country — if you are too big to fail, you are too big,” Perry said.
Romney, whose father was a former Michigan governor and a former auto executive, defended his opposition to the 2009 auto industry bailout that helped revive Michigan-based General Motors and Chrysler.
“It was the wrong way to go,” he said, adding he preferred letting the companies go into a structured bankruptcy.
Democrats hope the auto industry issue will be a potent one for Obama if he meets Romney in the 2012 election. All of the other Republican contenders also opposed the bailout.
The economic struggles in Michigan, which has seen its manufacturing base hit hard by the economic downturn, served as a backdrop to the debate. The unemployment rate of 11.1 percent in the state is the third-highest in the country and well above the 9 percent national rate.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Simao