THE WOODLANDS, Texas — Finally, they had the debate stage to themselves: The philosopher-politician vs. the businessman-preacher.
And for 90 minutes on Saturday night, there were no rehearsed attacks. Gone were the shiny podiums and 30-second rebuttals. In were the armchairs and three-minute monologues.
Newt Gingrich, the onetime House speaker whose appeal is his endless buffet of ideas, and Herman Cain, the former restaurant executive whose appeal is his folksy simplicity, faced off Saturday night in the friendliest of presidential debates.
They expounded upon their prescriptions to overhaul Medicare, privatize Social Security and rein in federal spending. Gingrich and Cain offered a dramatically different vision for government from that of the current occupant of the White House. But between the two Republican presidential hopefuls, there was hardly any daylight.
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"We both represent a willingness to talk about common sense without regard to whatever the national establishment thinks is acceptable," Gingrich said. "We are by any reasonable standard the two most radical candidates in this because we both are willing to say common sense, and in the city of Washington, common sense is such a radical idea."
The candidates sat side by side at a table and unleashed their intellectual and rhetorical firepower on a ballroom of several hundred tea party activists in this Houston suburb. Modeled after the Lincoln-Douglass debates of 1858, the Gingrich-Cain debate was designed to signal a departure from the it's- my-turn-to-speak gotcha slugfests that have dominated the GOP presidential debate circuit.
"Since it's the two of us, we can change the rules as we go," Cain quipped.
The event, a tea party fundraiser organized by the Texas Patriots Political Action Committee, with tickets costing $150 to $1,000, was hotly anticipated. After surging in the polls, Cain struggled over the past week to steady his campaign amid reports that two female subordinates of his at the National Restaurant Association once filed official sexual harassment complaints against him . But, at the request of debate organizers, the allegations were not addressed during Saturday's forum.
Many party leaders are skeptical that either Gingrich or Cain can go the distance, especially when compared with Romney and Perry, who are judged to be running far more serious campaigns.