ROCHESTER, Mich. — Rampant foreclosures, high unemployment and a volatile auto industry create a grim backdrop as the Republican presidential candidates debate in a state hit hard by the 2009 recession and longer-term changes in the American economy.
When they meet late Wednesday, the GOP contenders inevitably will have to contend with fallout from the furor surrounding businessman Herman Cain, who in recent days has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior by at least four women during the 1990s.
But with Detroit — the Motor City whose fortunes have fallen with the decline of the American auto industry — just a few miles away, Mitt Romney, Cain and their rivals also will have little choice but 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 participating in the debate at Oakland University in Rochester say they wouldn't have offered government loans to save the two auto giants. Chrysler's sprawling Auburn Hills headquarters is a short drive from the university's campus 35 miles north of Detroit.
It's a position that may play well in a GOP primary that features a conservative electorate and tea party backers calling for less federal spending. But the stance could alienate others, including independent voters who are critical players in close general elections.
Given the sharp differences between Obama and the Republicans on the issue, the auto bailouts are certain to remain a campaign issue heading into the November 2012 election no matter which Republican wins the party's presidential 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 are now 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 above 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, its third-highest unemployment rate — well above the national rate of 9 percent.
Detroit's woes are particularly acute.
According to the 2010 census, so many people have fled downtown 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, Obama's advisers argue that his actions saved the auto industry — and the jobs they provide — and that it's a winning re-election campaign issue. They hope the Democratic incumbent will get credit come next fall in this important Electoral College battleground and other vote-rich Midwestern states where the industry has a sizeable footprint.
Politically, the region has shifted toward the Republicans in recent years, posing big challenges for Obama as he seeks re-election at a time of stubbornly high unemployment and while the economy is in the midst of transformative change. Obama won Michigan in 2008.
Republicans plan to make a big play for the state despite the fact that its nominee has a position on the auto bailout that could prove to be problematic in a state where most people know someone who can't find a job and someone who works on the assembly lines.
Romney, virtually an adopted son of Michigan, is among those Republican candidates who have struggled to explain their positions.
"Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," was the headline of a 2008 piece he wrote on the bailouts.
In a newspaper column on Tuesday, Romney took a different tact. He didn't mention the bailouts and promoted his Michigan roots. He was born here and his father, George Romney, ran American Motor Corp. in the 1950s, a decade that saw the pinnacle of American cars.
"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 the businessman sexually harassed multiple women during his time as head 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 repeatedly has tried to put the matter to rest, doing multiple interviews before finally holding a news conference Tuesday where he insisted he would not abandon his White House bid because of the allegations.
"Ain't gonna happen," Cain said.
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