11/09/2011 11:05 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

The Elephant in the Room: Republicans Debate in Michigan

Here's a strategy that Herman Cain might want to consider: hire a Republican debate audience to travel with him wherever he goes as a means of warding off uncomfortable inquiries from the press. At the CNBC debate in Rochester, Michigan, Cain found himself in uber-friendly territory, surrounded by a force field of support that for two hours insulated him from the sexual harassment scandal that has scorched his campaign.

When the moderators asked their inevitable questions about the Cain allegations, spectators in the hall expressed their disapproval loud and clear -- unfairly so, because in a business-themed debate, it was entirely within bounds for Maria Bartiromo to query Cain about his competence as a CEO, given the nature of the charges. But Cain had the crowd on his side, and this allowed him to bat away the question with boilerplate babble.

The problem for Cain is that every word he speaks now sounds like a double entendre. In his first answer, Cain asserted that the Obama administration has impeded business growth by "putting stuff in the caboose" -- an odd analogy, but one that might have gone un-snickered at before the recent revelations. When Cain referred to Nancy Pelosi as "Princess Nancy," his accompanying sneer automatically raised the specter of sexism -- would it have two weeks ago? Until the harassment charges against him are cleared up, it is almost impossible for the general public to view Herman Cain as anything but a man under an extremely threatening cloud.

If Cain's predicament was the elephant in the room that went mostly unacknowledged, the debate's harshest spotlight shone on Rick Perry. Perry found himself unable to complete a laundry list of the three federal agencies he would abolish: Education, Commerce, and... ???? Despite several bites at the apple, he could not summon that final item on the roster, and by the end of this excruciating response, the only thing he had left to say was "oops!" -- a fitting epitaph, perhaps, for the entire Perry campaign. In his subsequent at-bat, Perry did identify Energy as the other department he would put on the chopping block, but this could not erase the doo-doo of a sound bite he had deposited just a few minutes earlier. If Perry did not already have a reputation as the class dunce, his memory lapse might have been glossed over -- but the governor has become a victim of his own weak debate performances, in a way that runs a yellow highlighter over any gaffes.

The rest of the debate unfolded as a predictable Republican wish list: cut taxes, deregulate business, kill health care, and, above all else, drive a stake through the heart of the Great Satan, Barack Obama.

Mitt Romney, after losing his temper last month at the Las Vegas debate, reverted to his usual cold fish self. He managed to deliver the line "I am a man of steadiness and constancy" without provoking audience laughter, and for the most part he kept himself out of harm's way -- which is what a front-runner is supposed to do.

If trophies were being awarded for pomposity in these debates, Newt Gingrich would have a sagging shelf full. Gingrich's endless snits over almost every single question he is asked represent an enormous waste of time. No wonder he's calling for three-hour Lincoln-Douglas-style debates -- his petulance demands a bigger platform than any cable news program can supply. If his poll numbers continue to grow, he can expect to gain additional air-time in the debates. Will it make him any less unpleasant? Doubtful.

This debate produced no particular winner, and one enormous loser: Rick Perry. Herman Cain undoubtedly basked in the fleeting glow of his sympathizers' support -- but tomorrow he must return to the soap opera of the campaign trail. And on Saturday night the Republican candidates meet again for their next debate.