US & Canada

Republican presidential candidates debate economy

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Media captionRick Perry could not remember the third government department he plans to abolish if elected president - Footage courtesy of CNBC.com

The eight contenders for the Republican presidential nomination have faced off over the economy at a debate in the state of Michigan.

Front-runner Mitt Romney criticised the government bailout of US car makers in the state, while his rivals said banks should not become too big to fail.

The debate was the first since sexual harassment allegations emerged against Mr Romney's chief rival, Herman Cain.

He dismissed the accusations, calling them "character assassination."

To a chorus of boos from the audience - aimed at the CNBC interrogators and not at Mr Cain - the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza said his character was beyond reproach.

"The American people deserve better than someone being tried in a court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations."

The biggest drama of the evening came when Texas Governor Rick Perry stumbled over his lines, finding himself unable to name the three federal departments he would eliminate if he became president - a key policy and a regular part of his stump speeches.

"The third agency of government I would - I would do away with education, the... commerce... commerce and, let's see. I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops," he said.

The answer he was looking for, he told moderators later, was the Department of Energy.

No Europe 'bailouts'

The Michigan debate, staged by the cable business channel CNBC, was held at Oakland University in Rochester.

In a series of questions focused on pressing economic issues, candidates discussed a range of topics from the eurozone debt crisis to the domestic housing market to bailouts for the domestic auto industry.

They generally agreed that the US should not "bail out" Europe, but warned that budget deficits in the US could create a similar crisis to the one faced by eurozone nations.

Candidates also used the time to reprise their calls for flat tax plans, social security reform and the repeal of President Barack Obama's healthcare law.

Each candidate was asked specifically what they would do about healthcare costs immediately after repealing the law.

Mr Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, called for individual state decisions on health care laws, while former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman argued for better access to medical records as a way of improving care.

The debate came nearly two months before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses to nominate a Republican nominee.