The GOP presidential candidates debate tonight in Michigan, where the state's economic woes will be on center stage.

The debate airs on CNBC, starting at 8 p.m. ET.

The snail-like pace of the national economic recovery is a running theme in this campaign. But Michigan's problems -- an unemployment rate of 11.1%, massive job losses in manufacturing, foreclosure filings at a rate of one per 322 units in September -- seem larger.

"Michigan has been in a recession arguably longer than any other state," said David Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., where the debate is being held.

"Times are still tough here," he said, noting the economy "is the biggest issue on people's minds."

The auto industry's fortunes and the government's bailout of General Motors and Chrysler will likely be a hot topic in the debate. The Democratic National Committee has been jabbing at Mitt Romney for his opposition to the taxpayer financing, replaying his comment "Let Detroit go bankrupt."

Romney was born in Detroit, grew up in its suburbs and is a familiar name to Michigan residents who remember his father, George, a former governor and CEO of the American Motors Co.

While Romney is confident he could win the state where he was born, no Republican has carried Michigan in a presidential election since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Still, with 16 electoral votes, Michigan is considered a crucial swing state on the road to the White House.

That political point has been underscored by President Obama. He's made nine trips to Michigan since he's been in the White House, according to CBS reporter Mark Knoller.

"Democrats flat out have to carry Michigan," said Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher ofthe Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. "President Obama has to carry Michigan, or he's not going to be re-elected."

Although the debate is focused on the economy, it will be hard to ignore the firestorm surrounding Herman Cain and allegations of sexual harrassment. Cain has insisted the accusations from four women who worked with him at the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s are "baseless."

Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman will also be at the debate.