THE WOODLANDS, Texas — Two presidential candidates with deep Georgia roots – one a long-time survivor of a personal life made public, the other newly wrestling with its consequences – created an oasis of scandal-free discussion Saturday with a one-on-one debate over how to shrink the federal safety net.
Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich greeted each other with a friendly embrace and for 90 minutes avoided every opportunity to disagree with each other’s plans to reform federal spending.
Not a word was spoken of Cain’s weeklong battle against charges that he was the object of sexual harassment complaints while head of a Washington lobbying organization in the 1990s.
The only allusion to Cain’s troubles came when the former U.S. House speaker asked his rival what had surprised him most in his run for president.
“The nit-pickiness of the media,” Cain replied. “I did not realize the fly-specking nature of the media — especially when you rise in the polls.”
In a session with reporters afterward, Cain was friendly until a reporter attempted to raise the topic of the sexual harassment complaints. Cain interrupted him, and called for a “good question.” “We are getting back on message. End of story,” he said, before being urged out of the room by aides.
In the debate, Cain and Gingrich agreed on shifting Medicaid, which provides health care to the poor, to a block grant system that would allow states to set their own standards and create their own programs.
Both agreed that young Americans should be offered the chance to establish private retirement accounts as an alternative to Social Security, as proposed by President George W. Bush.
When Cain said the privatization of Social Security would also require his “9-9-9” plan – which includes a 9 percent national sales tax – Gingrich demurred, announcing he would “sidestep the great temptation” to discuss the controversial proposal.
The only return jab came when Cain — running as a businessman in no need of government experience — declared that politicians always underestimate the costs of federal programs.
The debate, a $200-a-ticket fund-raiser for the Texas Patriots PAC, a tea party group, was intended as an antidote to crowded, televised debates that have featured a large GOP field reduced to 30-second sound bites. The two-man event was conceived this spring when few considered Cain and Gingrich viable contenders.
But a poor start by the campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry has allowed Cain to emerge as Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s chief contender less than two months before the Iowa caucuses.
Gingrich is also rising. A Washington Post/ABC News poll that last week put Cain in a virtual tie with Romney also showed Gingrich with double-digit support for the first time since he restarted his campaign in June.
For Cain, a debate format inspired by the famed 1858 confrontations over slavery between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas was a refreshing end to a tumultuous week. His campaign had been overwhelmed by the revelation of sexual harassment complaints lodged against him when he was president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association.
The organizers of Saturday’s debate declared the topic off-limits.
“Rather than being distracted by all the gossip, we want to know about the issues that are really important,” said Julie Turner, president of the group.
Even without the ban, thrice-married Gingrich wasn’t the man to raise the issue. He was the only GOP rival to forcefully defend Cain last week as the victim of a media-driven “witch hunt.”
Despite the respite from an uncomfortable topic, the debate was considered yet another test for Cain, a businessman who prides himself on his non-politician status and his ability to speak without a TelePrompter.
Until Saturday he had avoided going into detail about many of his views and proposals. But Cain held his own, and was stumped only once, when a moderator, during a discussion of Medicare, asked the former radio talk show host his opinion on “defined benefit plans with premium support.”
“You first, Newt,” Cain said.
There were no references to other Republicans in the contest. The duo preferred to target President Barack Obama, who Gingrich said was “about as criminal as Bernie Madoff in what he tells the American people.”
But Cain had the last word, with a final question for Gingrich. “If you were vice president of the United States, what would you want the president to assign you to do first?” he asked.
Gingrich said former Vice President Dick Cheney had taught him to avoid hunting.
Several times, Cain and Gingrich made reference to their friendship, which dates to Gingrich’s 1995 appointment of Cain to a tax reform commission. And their shared geography was noted by many.
But in fact, their time in Georgia never overlapped. Gingrich was an early presence in a nascent Republican party in the state, starting with a failed 1974 run for Congress. But after his party lost control of the House in 1998, Gingrich resigned from Congress and became a legal resident of Virginia.
Cain was raised in Atlanta, but left after graduating from Morehouse College in 1967. He returned in 2000. Most Republicans first became aware of him four years later during an unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate, which he lost to incumbent Johnny Isakson. Cain then launched a talk-radio career.
But the two candidates share more than red clay and a desire to remake the federal government.
Gingrich and Cain – and Romney and Perry, too — face skepticism from women voters. In a Quinnipiac University poll released last week, President Barack Obama led all likely GOP challengers, but his lead expanded among female voters surveyed. Romney did best, picking up the support of 38 percent of women.
The numbers imply that, though it was barred from the Texas debate, the issue of personal behavior is likely to remain a factor as the GOP race gets down to brass knuckles.
“There is a real division here between evangelical and social conservative men, and evangelical and social conservative women. The men are much more likely to be forgiving. The women are not,” said Richard Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
It is not a universal opinion. Julianne Thompson is a co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots. She was at a Gingrich event in Gwinnett last week and considers herself a personal friend of Cain, and said she would be watching the debate on C-SPAN on Saturday night instead of the Alabama-LSU football game.
She considers both Gingrich and Cain to be “excellent” candidates.
“I think we’re at the point that we don’t have the luxury of connecting just on social issues. I think that’s what a majority of tea party supporters think,” she said.
Thompson noted that, as a converted Catholic, Gingrich has gone through the process of confession and contrition. She considers the charges against Cain unproven, but faults his campaign staff for bumbling its response.
“I am looking at who Herman Cain is in 2011,” she said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider