ROCHESTER, Mich. -- Against the backdrop of global economic volatility, eight Republican presidential candidates gathered in suburban Detroit on Wednesday to debate financial issues and offer ideas for how to repair the ailing U.S. economy.
But in the opening moments of the nationally televised debate, businessman Herman Cain lashed out at those who have accused him of sexual harassment.
Asked to address the scandal that has consumed his campaign over the past 10 days, and to assess whether voters should judge his character before deciding whether to send him to the White House, Cain dismissed the allegations as "character assassination."
"The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations," the businessman said, prompting cheers from the audience. "I value my character and my integrity more than anything else, and for every one person that comes forward with a false accusation, there are thousands who would say none of that sort of activity ever came from Herman Cain."
Moderator John Harwood of CNBC then asked Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and businessman, whether he would fire Cain as a result of the allegations that he harassed multiple women while he was chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association in Washington.
The question prompted boos from the audience, and Romney deflected, saying: "Look, Herman Cain is the person to respond to these questions. He just did. The people in this room and across the country can make their own assessment."
It was just one of a series of animated exchanges that began the latest in a long series of Republican presidential debates held this year.
Cain and Romney answered the opening question, about the economic crisis spreading across Europe, saying the United States should resist all calls to bail out affected banks, whether domestic or foreign.
"Europe is able to take care of their own problems," Romney said. "We don't want to step in and try to bail out their banks and bail out their governments. My view is no, no, no. We do not need to step in to bail out banks in Europe or even banks here that have Italian debt."
The debate was sponsored by CNBC and the Michigan Republican Party. It was a fitting venue, given Michigan's high unemployment rate, its struggling automobile industry and its status as ground zero for the decline of manufacturing in the United States.
It was the ninth debate of the season in a year in which the uncertainty and volatility of the Republican field have lent these regular gatherings a measure of import not seen in previous campaigns.
In a contest that has remained fluid all year, one constant has been that no candidate has been able to consolidate that bloc of Republican voters who do not support Romney, considered the establishment front-runner, but whose position shifts have raised some skepticism.
Romney was forced to address that issue early on in Wednesday's debate, when he was asked by Harwood to explain why Republicans should vote for him "with a record like that of seeming to be on all sides of the issue."
"I think people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy," Romney said. "I don't think you're going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry sought to deliver his first truly solid debate performance after a series of appearances in which he stumbled over his lines and was unable to allay conservatives on issues such as illegal immigration.
Perry said he would eliminate three federal agencies. He would nix the Commerce and Education departments, but drew a blank when the moderator asked what the third agency would be. Perry previously has called on the elimination of the Energy Department.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has been one of the more aggressive candidates in attacking Romney on his evolving positions on some key issues, tried to jump-start his candidacy. But polling suggests GOP voters view Huntsman skeptically because of his more moderate positions, as well as his former service as Obama's ambassador to China.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia has seen his support grow in recent surveys, so much so that he had a new position on Wednesday, closer to center stage and next to Romney. He has been trying to demonstrate a mastery of economic and fiscal policy issues, hoping conservative voters disenchanted with Romney might soon stick with him.