The two-man debate between GOP presidential candidates Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich started out Saturday evening with questions on health care spending and Social Security's future — and completely bypassed the biggest political story of the week, the decade-old sexual harassment allegations that have dogged Cain's campaign.
Tea party organizers of the event near Houston said that matter, which consumed the GOP race this past week, was off the table. It came as welcome news to Cain as he tries to refocus on policy issues.
"Long-term projections about what a government program is going to cost have never been right," Cain said, projecting confidence as he sat side-by-side with the former House Speaker in high-back chairs.
"Name one," Cain challenged the audience with similar defiance he displayed all week as he fought to steady his political campaign.
A lawyer for one of Cain's accusers said Friday that his client had filed a complaint "in good faith" against Cain in the 1990s for "several instances of sexual harassment" and had received a financial settlement.
Attorney Joel Bennett suggested Cain wasn't telling the truth in his repeated denials of the incidents that allegedly took place while the Georgia businessman headed the National Restaurant Association.
Cain repeatedly has denied ever sexually harassing anyone, and his campaign said it was "looking to put this issue behind us."
Gingrich seemed happy to oblige.
"We have to come up with solutions that are actually better," Gingrich told the room packed with conservatives.
He likened the approach to Wal-Mart.
"People think they're getting a better deal," Gingrich said of the discount retailer.
He said it was up to Republicans to come up with a similar trust-worthy brand during the opening exchanges of a debate, a $200-per-ticket event modeled after the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
Those debates between rivals for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois were sprawling discussions of substance that politicians hold up as models for civil discussions. Gingrich, a former history professor, lauds them during his campaign and has proposed a series of seven, three-hour debates with President Barack Obama.
The other candidates vying for the GOP nomination were invited; only Cain and Gingrich accepted the invitation.
Saturday's 90-minute forum was intended to allow Cain and Gingrich to debate specifics in their economic plans, with U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa on hand to moderate if necessary.
Organizers ditched the time limits, bells and fast pace of the previous debates that included the full field — Gingrich decried them as encouraging useless answers instead of responses offered in "a non-30-second, a non-trivial way."
And during the opening moments, Cain pledged to have a conversation, not a debate.
"Since it's the two of us, we can change the rules as we go," Cain said.
Gingrich, who prides himself on his grasp of policy, had nothing to gain by raising allegations of improper sexual behavior by one of his rivals. The former House speaker from Georgia has been divorced twice and married three times, including to his current wife with whom he had an affair while married to his second wife.
Instead, Gingrich advisers said he would outline his plans and softly compare his policy proposals to his rivals. He started to lay the groundwork for the contrasts during a speech to Iowa Republicans a day before. After praising each of his rivals, he then gently described how he differs from them.
His advisers said he planned a similar tact on Saturday night.
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