ROCHESTER, Mich. (AP) — Rampant foreclosures, high unemployment and a volatile auto industry are part of the stark backdrop for Wednesday's Republican presidential candidates' debate in a state that continues to struggle from the 2009 recession and weakened economy.
The GOP hopefuls inevitably will also have to contend with fallout from the furor surrounding businessman Herman Cain, who in recent days has been accused by at least four women of inappropriate sexual behavior during the 1990s.
The field will gather just outside Detroit, a city whose fortunes have fallen with the decline of the American auto industry. Michigan native Mitt Romney, Cain and their rivals likely will have to explain their opposition to a government bailout that saved Chrysler and General Motors and the tens of thousands of jobs they provide, all on President Barack Obama's watch.
All eight Republicans attending Wednesday's debate at Oakland University in Rochester say they wouldn't have offered government loans to save two of the three U.S. auto giants. It's a position that may play well in a GOP primary, where a conservative electorate and tea party backers are calling for less federal spending. But the stance could alienate independent voters — critical players in close general elections. Given the sharp differences between Obama and the Republicans on the issue, the auto bailouts are certain to emerge as a campaign topic a year from now no matter which candidate wins the Republican nomination.
In one of his early actions as president, Obama pushed for — and secured — government bailouts for the teetering Chrysler and General Motors. The companies went through bankruptcy and now are making money and hiring again. And they've had some good months of sales, points Obama made last month during a visit to GM's small-car assembly plant in Orion Township near Pontiac.
But Michigan's economy is still bad, a victim of the auto industry's long slide. The industrial state has weathered a decade-long economic slump that pushed the jobless rate over 14 percent after the financial meltdown hit in late 2008.
Today, the state has the nation's seventh-highest foreclosure rate and, at 11.1 percent, the third-highest unemployment rate — well above the country's national 9 percent rate.
Detroit's woes are particularly acute.
According to the 2010 census, so many people have fled the downtown area that it's smaller than at any time since 1910, when Henry Ford was just inventing the assembly line. A full quarter of the city's population left between 2000 and 2010. Whole blocks are vacant, with more than 20 percent of the city's housing uninhabited.
Despite all that, the president's advisers argue that Obama's actions saved the auto industry — and many of its jobs. They hope Michigan voters will credit the Democratic incumbent come next fall's election as well as in other vote-rich Midwestern states where the auto industry has a sizeable footprint. Michigan is an important Electoral College battleground.
Politically, the region has shifted toward the Republicans in recent years, posing big challenges for Obama as he seeks re-election while unemployment remains stubbornly high and the country's economy is struggling.
Nonetheless Republicans plan to make a big play for the state, even though the party's eventual nominee opposed the auto company bailouts. That position could be problematic in a state where most people know someone who can't find a job or who works on the assembly line.
Romney, who was born in Detroit, is among the candidates who have struggled to explain their positions.
"Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," was the headline of a 2008 piece he wrote on the auto bailouts.
He took a different tack in a newspaper column on Tuesday. He didn't mention the bailouts at all, but rather promoted his Michigan roots. He was born here and his father, George Romney, ran American Motors Corp. in the 1950s, one of the strongest decades for American cars, before he was elected governor of Michigan in 1962.
"In Detroit, the city of my birth, far higher joblessness has brought a great city to the edge of ruin," Romney wrote. "There will be no one on that stage this week more pained by Michigan's struggles than I am."
At every opportunity, Obama's campaign attacks Romney for opposing the auto bailouts.
"If Mitt Romney was president, there would not be an American auto industry," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Tuesday. "Romney must explain to Michigan voters this week why he would have let Detroit go bankrupt."
It's an open question whether the debate will stay focused on Michigan's woes.
Three weeks have passed since the last debate — a period marked first by Cain's rise in national polls and then a media firestorm over allegations that he sexually harassed multiple women while he was president of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
Cain's troubles threaten to overshadow a discussion hosted by business channel CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party.
"It is a distraction for what could be a very good press day for Michigan and Michigan Republicans," Saul Anuzis, a Michigan-based member of the National Republican Committee, said of the Cain allegations. "I think it's in every candidate's interests to stay focused on the issues."
Cain has repeatedly tried to put the matter to rest, doing numerous interviews and finally holding a news conference Tuesday afternoon. He insisted he would not abandon his White House bid because of the allegations.
"Ain't gonna happen," he said.
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