Herman Cain Skates, Rick Perry Flubs at CNBC Presidential Debate

Romney had a strong night at the CNBC face-off, while Cain escaped grilling on sexual harassment and Perry had a brain freeze. Howard Kurtz reports. Plus, more Daily Beast columnists weigh in.

Herman Cain, facing a rising tide of sexual-harassment allegations, caught two big breaks at Wednesday’s presidential debate.

First, CNBC moderator Maria Bartiromo failed to follow up when he charged that he is the victim of “character assassination”—neglecting even to point out that the trade group he headed paid $80,000 in settlements to two of his accusers.

Second, the crowd booed the Money Honey’s question—and cheered Cain’s defiant answer.

That hardly means the controversy is fading, but it allowed the former pizza executive to spend the rest of his time fielding economic questions without journalistic harassment.

The face-off in Michigan was almost exclusively devoted to the issues the public cares most about: the economy, housing, health care, and Social Security. But the fact-laden questions produced the kind of debate the press finds difficult to score: the candidates barely took a swipe at one another.

With one glaring exception: Rick Perry was the biggest loser. The man simply cannot memorize his talking points.

After a series of stumbling performances, the governor of Texas attempted to tick off the three federal agencies he would abolish, and was stumped at two. He paused, regrouped, and still couldn’t come up with the missing one (the Energy Department, which is hardly obscure). It was the only Perry moment anyone will remember, and a metaphor for his erratic campaign.

Cain reverted to his earlier habit of answering virtually every question with 9-9-9, almost to the point of absurdity, and was never pressed on the criticisms that prompted him to modify the tax plan. He gives good sound bite—“Focus on the domestic economy or we will fail”—but broke no new ground.

Mitt Romney appeared the most comfortable, which is no surprise given his business background. His nuanced answers don’t lend themselves to Cain-style one-liners, but he’s updated the GOP talking point of saying a debt-laden America could become Greece. He now says America could become Italy.

Moderator John Harwood pressed Romney for criticizing and then appearing to embrace President Obama’s auto bailout. Romney doubled down by saying the bailout was wrong and he wanted a “managed” bankruptcy—not a popular stance in Michigan, but better than acknowledging a flip-flop.

Newt Gingrich turned in a solid performance but kept returning to his media-bashing ways, telling Bartiromo it is “absurd” to expect a health-care answer in 30 seconds. Maybe so, but the candidates all agreed to the rules.

The other candidates were largely invisible, although Michele Bachmann took a bold stand by saying every taxpayer should pay at least a couple of Happy Meals. Call it the McDonald’s Plan.

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After a brutal 10 days, Herman Cain is probably breathing easier. But if the debate was any indication, Romney’s stock is on the rise.