Republican operatives, pollsters and consultants seem in agreement that Herman Cain is, as a prominent communications guru put it, “toast.” The guru said that the rally-round-Cain phenomenon “reminds me of how some people defended Christine O’Donnell at all costs and now pretend they didn’t.” But even that reflexive defense of a besieged conservative is being squelched. A Republican operative not associated with any campaign says, “Herman Cain would rather keep digging than get out of the race and spare all those around him.” Translation: Enough already. Next!
In Iowa, where it matters most, it is safe to say thing are in flux. A social conservative leader told me by phone “It’s anybody’s race.” The leaders not ready to quite write Cain off but one does recall, “Some of his staff left early on. Maybe they caught whiff of something.” She’s not pleased that Cain has been absent. “Here a handshake outweighs a sound bite.” When a candidate isn’t here, that ability to bond with voters doesn’t happen, the leader warns. Many social conservatives still have no love for Mitt Romney, but his strategy of “less is more” seems to be paying off. The social conservative leader says, “Had he been here more, he would sink lower.” Ouch.
Savvy political insiders understand that initial polling is misleading and Cain may temporarily show little damage. Cary R. Covington, an Iowa political expert from the University of Iowa, e-mailed me: “In this case, Cain supporters (and those who are open or sympathetic but undecided) give him the unequivocal benefit of the doubt. They blame the messenger (the ‘liberal mainstream media’). They cast doubts on the women making the accusations. It would be very unusual to see any other reaction in the first few days.” But as more facts dribble out and voters have a chance to chew on the facts (including Thursday’s revelation that a second accuser got a $45,000 settlement) that may well change. More facts may come to light if one of Cain’s accusers is allowed to make a public statement. (The National Restaurant Association is reviewing her written remarks and will determine whether to waive the confidentiality agreement.)
There is some evidence that Republicans’ patience with Cain may be wearing thin as the focus moves to how Cain has responded rather than what he was accused of. Professor Arthur Sanders of Drake University, a veteran Iowa caucus watcher, thinks Cain’s support will erode. “His attempts to defuse the issue have not been working particularly well, since the contradictions in what he has been saying have tended to make things worse.”
So, if Cain’s support does fall off, who benefits? Everyone has a theory. Sanders reasons that Texas Gov. Rick Perry potentially benefits “because it provides a pool of voters that might find him attractive and help him resurrect his campaign. (The money he has begun spending on TV ads also helps in this regard.) For [Mitt] Romney, the potential benefit is that this will further divide the ‘anybody but Romney,’ crowd — the strong conservatives who do not trust Romney to be ‘conservative enough.’ ” He surmises, “A Cain drop in the polls could lead to small increases in support for a number of candidates (Gingrich, Santorum, Perry), which would improve Romney’s chances.”
There seems to be little disagreement that Cain will be hurt. Iowa blogger and longtime caucus watcher Craig Robinson tells me it isn’t just the sexual harassment cases. “There is no doubt in my mind that this, along with his contradictory answers on abortion, will hurt him with Iowa caucus goers. Both of these things have occurred at the same time when many social conservatives in iowa are making up their minds as to who they will support.” He recognizes that die-hard Cain fans may deny there is any problem at all. (“To understand who Cain’s supporters are, we must not forget that they have no problem that their candidate supports the concept of TARP, you know the thing that launched the entire Tea Party movement in America.”)
Robinson makes the case: “As to who is best positioned to capitalize, I think it’s probably Santorum, Perry and maybe Gingrich (in that order).” In that regard Santorum’s red-meat social conservative speech Friday is well-timed to grab the Cain voters, many of whom are strong social conservatives.
As for Perry, he’s not yet wowed social conservatives. Tamara Scott, Iowa state chair for Concerned Women for America, says that his position on abortion (allowing for exceptions for life of the mother, rape and incest) is “not cutting it” with pro-lifers. Robinson agrees that Perry in the latest Des Moines Register polls “struggles with born-again Christians, so he has a lot to work to do to convince those people that he’s their guy.”
And then there is Newt Gingrich. As odd as it may seem, some think that Cain supporters disgusted with Cain’s sexual harassment problems may consider him. At least he knows what he is talking about on some issues. Scott recalls that at the latest Faith and Freedom forum in Iowa Gingrich “hit a home run.” His ability to succinctly lay out issues and come up with conservative solutions impressed her, “despite his personal baggage.” As Robinson puts it, “Gingrich has his own checkered past he has to contend with, so people wouldn’t line up behind him for the same reasons they would back Santorum. Instead, I think Newt appeals to those contrarian voters who might have been supporting Cain.”
In short, Cain’s support could well fragment. Santorum’s name recognition is still low, so may have the most room to move up. But, although it might rankle conservatives, Romney has consistently polled high as the “second choice” of many voters. He’s likely to get his chunk of Cain voters (the pro-business, Main Street voters) as well.
Iowa is a microcosm of the entire primary race: fluid and fractured. No one is dominating, but one by one candidates seem to be taking themselves out of contention.