Republicans shift from scandal to Europe crisis

Republican presidential candidates, from left: Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Updated: 9:55 p.m. ET

ROCHESTER, Michigan  - Republican presidential candidates rejected U.S. intervention in the European financial crisis as they sought to use a debate Wednesday to shift the spotlight from the sexual harassment allegations made against Herman Cain.

They also warned that failing to cut budget deficits at home would doom the U.S. to the same sort of crisis that now plagues Greece and Italy.

The eight-candidate debate in hard-hit Michigan was the first since the scandal rocked Cain's upstart campaign early last week. 

Cain, a political novice and businessman, has been at the top of polls alongside former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Cain's troubles have dominated U.S. politics, sidetracking attention from the economy - the issue seen as President Barack Obama's greatest vulnerability.

But the debate, focusing on the economy, offered candidates a chance to offer their proposals less than two months before the Iowa caucuses, the party's first nominating contest.

Moderators from the business news channel CNBC asked if the United States should join in a bailout of Italy. Europe's third-largest economy is dealing with massive government debt.

Romney said there will be an effort to draw the U.S. in, but "Europe is able to take care of their own problems. We don't want to step in and bail out their banks and their economies."

Even so, he said the United States should continue contributing to organizations like the International Monetary Fund that are working to prevent a meltdown in troubled economies.

Cain said there wasn't much the United States could do to directly to help Italy at present because the economy there is in such difficult shape.

For Cain, the question at the start of the debate appeared to be a welcome change from the nonstop attention to the harassment allegations. Four women say Cain sexually harassed them while he headed a restaurant trade association in the 1990s. He has adamantly denied any wrongdoing.

The audience booed when moderators asked Cain about whether the allegations should be a consideration in whether he is qualified to be president. Cain said the American people "deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations."

Romney, a former venture capitalist, was asked if he would keep Cain on the job as a CEO given the accusations. He responded, "Herman Cain is the person to respond to these questions. He just did."

Cain's rivals have approached his troubles cautiously. In an earlier interview with ABC News, Romney said the allegations were "particularly disturbing" and needed to be addressed.

One of the four women has said Cain groped her after a dinner meeting to discuss a possible job, but she never filed a complaint.

Two of the other women had complained to the trade group and later received payments. They have not disclosed details of their allegations.

Cain has attacked the credibility and motivations of his accusers. He has repeatedly tried to put the controversy to rest,doing interview after interview and finally holding a news conference Tuesday insisting that he would continue to stand alongside his rivals despite the accusations.

The controversy has made it difficult for the other Republicans to campaign as usual and keep the focus on beating Obama.

But at the debate, the candidates stuck to the theme of the economy. There were few if any early sparks among rivals who often spar energetically. They all called for a smaller role for government. Not surprisingly, none of the contenders found much to like in Obama's economic stewardship.

Michigan offered a good location to discuss America's economic problems. Its unemployment rate is 11.1 percent - even higher than the national rate of 9 percent.

But there was only scant mention of the Michigan auto industry, which benefited in 2008 and 2009 from a federal bailout that both President George W. Bush and Obama backed.

All eight Republicans on the debate stage say they wouldn't have offered government assistance.

Not so Obama, who stood outside a factory not far from the debate site recently and said government bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler were a success that saved thousands of American jobs.

Obama is counting on the bailout to help him win Michigan, a state critical to his re-election hopes.

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