Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, two Tea Party favorites for the GOP presidential nomination, came to Rick Perry's home turf to debate on Saturday. But in an event hosted by the Texas Patriots PAC that was far more dialogue than debate, the two had little to say about their Texas rivals, Perry and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
The only sparks of the night flew in the media spin room after the debate, when a reporter asked Cain about the news of the week: that sexual harassment allegations were levied against him when he headed the National Restaurant Association years ago. Cain cut the reporter off and asked his chief of staff, Mark Block, to send the reporter the "journalistic code of ethics." Pressed to answer, Cain told reporters, "We're getting back on message. End of story!"
Before a sold out audience at a resort in The Woodlands, Cain and Gingrich used their 90 minutes to discuss how to reform the country's entitlement programs, touching on a number of issues that have stirred debate in Texas this year: loser pays legislation, requiring photo IDs in order to vote, and Galveston's unique approach to Social Security, all of which they support.
There was very little disagreement. When Cain brought up his famous "9-9-9" tax plan, Gingrich demurred, saying he would resist the temptation to talk about it. Instead, with no real time limits to speak of, Gingrich gave the kind of wonky, detailed explanations of his policy proposals rarely allowed in other formats — specifically allowing workers more choice in their Social Security accounts, expanding 1996 welfare reforms and replacing "Obamacare" with other health measures.
Some of the themes Cain and Gingrich hit are common refrains in Perry's remarks on the campaign trail, like the characterization of states as laboratories of innovation, and the notion that certain federal systems are tantamount to Ponzi schemes. At one point, Gingrich compared President Barack Obama to Bernie Madoff.
If anyone faltered, it was Cain, already struggling this week with a barrage of media attention over his past sexual harassment allegations. On Saturday night, he was unable to discuss the issues in the same level of detail as his Gingrich. During the Medicare portion of the debate, when asked if he preferred a defined benefit plan or premium support, Cain said, "A defined... you go first, Newt."
At the end of the night, when the candidates got the chance to ask each other questions, Gingrich asked Cain an admitted softball about what it was like getting into politics after his success in the private sector. Cain said the biggest surprise was "the nit-pickiness of the media," and went on to say that some journalists are "downright dishonest." Cain returned the favor by asking Gingrich what he would do as vice president. Gingrich said that, after studying Dick Cheney, he would refrain from hunting. (While in office, Cheney famously shot his friend Harry Whittington in the face while quail hunting in Texas.)
Asked by reporters after the debate why he has been spending so much time in Texas, Cain put it bluntly: "There's a lot of money here in Texas."
"If I had been running this campaign the way the pundits think I should be running it, I would have dropped out at the end of August," he said. But, he said, "when people get on the Cain train, they don’t get off."
The night's first mention of Perry didn't come until Gingrich entered the spin room. Gingrich contrasted the collegial tone of the evening to the bickering between Perry and rival Mitt Romney in recent debates. Gingrich called the much-discussed debate moment where Romney put his hand on Perry's shoulder "kind of weird, frankly."