It was a quick and relatively painless moment for Herman Cain, the first time his response to allegations of sexual harassment yielded audible applause. Standing on the CNBC Republican debate stage Wednesday night next to Mitt Romney, Cain answered a debate moderator’s question about character and leadership that was tucked into a query about the business world.
“American people want jobs, but they also want leadership, they want character in a president,” said Maria Bartiromo, one of the debate moderators to Cain about 21 minutes in, explaining, in case anyone in the political world doesn’t already know it, that four women have accused him of sexual harassment.
“Here we are focusing on character and on judgement. You’ve been a CEO, you know that shareholders are reluctant to hire a CEO where there are character issues. Why should the American people hire a president if they feel there are character issues?”
And even before Bartiromo could get the question out, the Rochester, Mich., crowd erupted into audible boos.
Cain, who struck a defiant tone in a Tuesday news conference to rebut the charges, clearly sensed the crowd was on his side and came prepared.
“The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion, based on unfounded accusations,” he said, the crowd cheering him on. “I value my character and my integrity more than anything else, and for every one person that comes forward with a false accusation…there are thousands who would say, none of that sort of activity came from Herman Cain.”
He then suggested that the allegations have turned into a great moment for his campaign, adding money to his coffers. The campaignhas stated that some $2 million has been raised since the allegations surfaced last Sunday night.
“Over the last nine days, the voters have voted with their dollars and they are saying they don’t care about the character assassination,” Cain said. “They care about leadership and getting this economy growing and all of the other problems we face.”
And with that, Cain was done. Yet the moderators weren’t.
Turning to Romney, John Harwood, one of the moderators, asked the GOP frontrunner that if he bought a company, and Cain, with sexual harassment allegations hanging over his head, was the CEO, whether he would keep Cain on the job.
“Herman Cain is the person to respond to these questions. He just did,” Romney said, punting on the question as the audience cheered. “The people in this room and across the country can make their own assessment.”
The answer was markedly different than the one Romney gave earlier this week, when he called the public allegations of Chicago woman Sharon Bialek “serious” and “disturbing.”
And with that, the most anticipated moment of the debate was over.
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