- Associated Press - Saturday, November 5, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) — The two-man debate between GOP presidential candidates Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich had one off-limit topic — the decade-old sexual harassment allegations that have dogged Cain’s campaign.

Tea party organizers of Saturday night’s event in Texas said that matter, which consumed the GOP race this past week, was off the table. That would seem to be welcome news to Cain as he tries to refocus on issues such as the future of Social Security and Medicare — expected points of discussion with Gingrich.

A lawyer for one of Cain’s accusers said Friday that his client had filed a complaint “in good faith” against Cain in the 1990s for “several instances of sexual harassment” and had received a financial settlement.

Attorney Joel Bennett suggested Cain wasn’t telling the truth in his repeated denials of the incidents that allegedly took place while the Georgia businessman headed the National Restaurant Association.

Cain repeatedly has denied ever sexually harassing anyone, and his campaign said it was “looking to put this issue behind us.”

His rivals are steering clear of the matter.

During a candidates’ forum Friday night Iowa, only Gingrich alluded to Cain, and that was a passing reference to Cain’s tax plan.

Gingrich’s advisers said he would not cite the harassment claims against Cain during the debate in The Woodlands, a $200-per-ticket event modeled after the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

Those debates between rivals for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois were sprawling discussions of substance that politicians hold up as models for civil discussions. Gingrich, a former history professor, lauds them during his campaign and has proposed a series of seven, three-hour debates with President Barack Obama.

Saturday’s 90-minute forum was intended to allow Cain and Gingrich to debate specifics in their economic plans, with U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa on hand to moderate if necessary.

Organizers didn’t plan the time limits, bells or fast pace of the previous debates that featured the full field.

Gingrich, who prides himself on his grasp of policy, had nothing to gain by raising allegations of improper sexual behavior by one of his rivals. The former House speaker from Georgia has been divorced twice and married three times, including to his current wife with whom he had an affair while married to his second wife.

Gingrich, who calls Cain a friend, had some words of advice for Cain on Friday.

“Just has to slow down, take a deep breath,” Gingrich said.

“If you’ve never before been hit by the entire national press corps, it’s a very disorienting experience. I think that he probably wasn’t prepared for it and I think now he’s got to sit down and sort it out and we’ll see how he does,” Gingrich told CNN.

“This is a very hard business — and it should be,” Gingrich said. “This is the presidency of the United States. If you can’t get through the campaign, you sure can’t govern.”

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