ABC News’ Arlette Saenz and Elicia Dover report:
THE WOODLANDS, Texas — While the focus of the night was intended to be the substance of the Lincoln-Douglas style debate between Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich here, Cain was put in the hot spot when he refused to answer reporters’ questions about the sexual harassment allegations against him.
“Don’t even go there,” Cain interrupted when a Washington Post reporter began asking a question about the sexual harassment allegations at a press conference following the two-man debate. “Where’s my chief of staff? Please send him the Journalistic Code of Ethics.”
Reporters pressed Cain as he tried to leave the room, asking him why he was avoiding answering questions about the accusations, but aides shouted over reporters, yelling “No gossip.”
“Are you not going to answer any questions ever again, Mr. Cain, this sexual harassment stuff, is that what you’re saying,” one reporter asked.
“You got it,” Cain said with a smile.
“How can you run a presidential campaign and be a frontrunner when you won’t answer questions about this?” another reporter asked.
“If you all just listen for 30 seconds, I will explain this one time,” Cain said to reporters before leaving the room. “We are getting back on message, end of story. Back on message, read all of the other accounts, read all of the other accounts, where everything has been answered. End of story. We’re getting back on message, OK?”
The debate organizers decided the topic of sexual harassment claims was off-limits during the 90-minute session between the former House Speaker and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, which focused on entitlement reform. While Gingrich and Cain struck a cordial tone throughout, never once attacking one another, Cain took an opportunity to lob criticism at the media.
“The nitpickiness of the media,” Cain said when asked by Gingrich what surprised him most about the running for president. “I expected to have to work hard. I expected to have to study hard. But I did not realize the ‘fly specking’ nature of the media when you are running for president, especially when you start moving up in the polls, and so that has been the biggest surprise because if there is a journalistic standard, a lot of them don’t follow it, and as a result too many people get misinformation and disinformation.
He added, “There are too many people in the media who are downright dishonest, not all, but too many of them do a disservice to the American people.”
The debate between the two Georgians, which was hosted by a Houston-area tea party group, adopted a more conversational tone and lacked the animosity that has become a hallmark of other primary debates this year.
“Mr. Speaker, if you were the Vice President of the United States,” Cain asked as Gingrich and the audience laughed, “what would you want the president assign you to do first?”
“Well, having studied by good friend Dick Cheney, I would not go hunting,” Gingrich responded.
But Gingrich did take the chance to criticize President Obama, likening him to a concocter of a Ponzi scheme.
“The president is about as candid and accurate as Bernie Madoff in what he tells the American people,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich has repeatedly said he would challenge Obama to seven two-hour, two man Lincoln-Douglas style debates, which originated in the 1858 Senate race between Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas when they held debates in seven sites across Illinois. Gingrich vowed to keep his eye on Obama instead of tossing negative attacks at his Republican opponents and pointed to an exchange between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney at the last debate as an example of behavior in which he would not engage.
“If you watch what happened to both Romney and Perry when they got involved in bickering, and Romney reached out and put his hand on Perry, in what I thought was kind of weird frankly,” Gingrich said. “This is not a year where the American people are amused in the middle of the level of pain that we have by politicians who become negative and who become tiny. They shrink.
“I’m going to stay positive,” he said. “The only person I intend to be very directly critical of is President Obama and I’m going to keep focusing on President Obama up through the seven debates in September and October next year.”