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The Herman Cain harassment story: How bad is it for him?

at 07:25 AM ET, 10/31/2011

Allegations that businessman Herman Cain was accused of inappropriate behavior toward co-workers on two occasions in the 1990s threaten to derail a presidential campaign that had propelled the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza from afterthought to frontrunner.


Republican party presidential candidate and frontrunner Herman Cain appears on "Face the Nation" October 30, 2011 in Washington. REUTERS/Chris Usher-CBS NEWS/Handout
The allegations, which were first reported by Politico, involve Cain’s time as head of the National Restaurant Association. In both instances, the women accused the now-presidential candidate of behaving toward them in a sexually suggestive way, according to Politico.

Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon blasted the story, although he did not issue a direct denial of the reporting.

“Fearing the message of Herman Cain, who is shaking up the political landscape in Washington, inside-the-Beltway media have begun to launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain,” said Gordon. He added that the “political trade press are now casting aspersions on (Cain’s) character and spreading rumors that never stood up to the facts.”

(It’s worth noting that when directly confronted by a Politico reporter on Sunday, Cain refused to answer a question about whether he had ever been accused of sexual harassment. Instead he asked the reporter: “Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?”)

The question for Cain now is not whether this story hurts him (it does), but how badly he is damaged by it and whether his presidential campaign, which was already showing signs of losing the rocket-like momentum he had built over the past month, can sustain.

“The story has been floating around for a long time, but [I] don’t know any of the details,” said Sal Russo, a California-based Republican consultant with close ties to the tea party movement. “I have heard it both ways about whether it was anything egregious. So (we) have to wait and see.”

While the first reaction from the Cain campaign isn’t a bad strategic move — try to turn the story into the latest episode of the mainstream media having it out for a conservative — the detailed nature of the Politico article will make it tough for him to simply stand by that first statement.

At some point — and that point is likely very soon — Cain is going to have to issue a public accounting that makes clear to reasonable people that these allegations were spurious and without merit. In the absence of such proof, rhetoric alone is very unlikely to save him from a flurry of questions asking for more information about the allegation. And the fewer answers he has, the more questions will get asked.

We may know more as soon as today because — in a fit of tremendous timing for political reporters and less-tremendous timing for Cain — he will be in Washington, D.C., for the better part of the day; he is scheduled to appear in the morning at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss his “9-9-9” tax reform plan and then at a National Press Club at a luncheon.

Predicting how stories like this one will play out are virtually impossible. (We still remember well when we genuinely thought South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was hiking the Appalachian Trail.)

It’s possible that Cain is able to beat the story back with a detailed accounting of just what happened. It’s also possible that the story heads in all sorts of directions that Cain’s still-spartan staff aren’t able to control.

“Bill Clinton’s campaign survived this and much worse,” said Ari Fleischer, a Republican strategist and former White House press secretary. “Plus, the normal rules don’t seem to apply to an outsider like Cain.”

At a minimum, the story will serve as a week-long (and probably longer) distraction for Cain, who was hoping to use the next few weeks to prove to the political class he could raise the money and put together the sort of organization that could make him a real rival to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

“A good campaign can usually weather a story like this if they get in front of it, and deal with it quickly and forthrightly,” said Todd Harris, a veteran Republican operative. “So far at least, that’s not what Cain is doing.”

Two-man race in Iowa: The second Des Moines Register Iowa Poll of the 2012 election was released late Saturday, and it confirms that the Iowa caucuses are a two-man game right now.

Cain leads at 23 percent, while Romney is in a statistical tie at 22 percent. They are followed by Rep. Ron Paul at 12 percent, Rep. Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House speaker Newt Gingrich at 7 percent, former senator Rick Santorum at 5 percent and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman at 1 percent.

The last Register poll had Romney and Bachmann leading the race, before Perry entered the race and before Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll.

The latest poll mirrors a CNN/Time Magazine Iowa poll from last week and adds to the drama about whether Romney will put forward real effort in the Hawkeye State.

New Perry ad: ‘I’m a doer, not a talker’: Perry is out with another Iowa ad, playing up his record as governor and playing down his rhetorical performances in recent weeks.

The ad opens with a joke about President Obama’s reliance on teleprompters and goes on to discuss Perry’s record in Texas.

“If you’re looking for a slick politician or a guy with great teleprompter skills, we already have that, and he’s destroying our economy,” an upbeat Perry says in the ad. “I’m a doer, not a talker.”

Perry to debate, for the foreseeable future: After broaching the idea of skipping some debates, Perry’s campaign confirmed this weekend that he will take part in all five scheduled debates in November and December.

At the same time, during an appearance on Fox News Sunday, Perry sounded like a guy who would still consider skipping future debates, saying there are too many as it is.

“Well, I said that 18 debates is, I think, way too many debates, frankly,” Perry said. “It’s an incredible amount of time and preparation and what have you.”

Perry also suggested he would do just fine in a debate with Obama in the general election.

Cain explains his ad: Herman Cain says the viral video released by his campaign does not glorify smoking, despite showing chief of staff Mark Block puffing on a cigarette.

“Mark Block smokes; that’s all that ad says,” Cain told CBS’s Bob Schieffer. “We weren’t trying to say it’s cool to smoke. You have a lot of people in this country that smoke. But what I respect about Mark as a smoker, who is my chief of staff, he never smokes around me or smokes around anyone else. He goes outside.”

Admirable indeed.

Schieffer pressed Cain on the matter, noting he himself is a cancer survivor and former smoker, but Cain said it would be pointless to take the ad down now, given how much it has already been out there.

Fixbits:

Obama adviser David Plouffe says Romney “has no core” and would say the sky is green and the grass is blue if it would get him elected.

Perry admits he has flipped on whether the federal government should subsidize the energy industry.

Cain scales back his already-odd campaign schedule.

Cain leads Perry in Perry’s home state, according to a new poll.

Paul says “Occupy Wall Street” is all about government handouts.

Paul reiterates that he isn’t planning a third-party run if he loses the GOP primary.

Voters in Wisconsin are evenly split on whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker (R), according to a new poll.

$30 million has been spent on the referendum on Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s (R) bill limiting the collective bargaining rights of unions.

South Carolina state Rep. Alan Clemmons (R) won’t run for the state’s new 7th district, clearing the way for state Rep. Thad Viers (R).

AP runs down a possible primary between Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Brad Miller (D-N.C.).

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) continues his busy campaigning schedule, stumping for Mississippi Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) in the final days of the state’s open governor’s race.

Must-reads:

Perry, Romney contrast in style, substance” — AP

Obama’s demographic support may not weather economy” — David Lauter, Los Angeles Times

The temptation of Mitt” — John Heilemann, New York Magazine

Mitt Romney, the pretzel candidate” — George Will, Washington Post

Studies challenge wisdom of GOP candidates’ plans” — Charles Babington, AP

Mitt Romney Limits National Media Exposure With Frontrunner Strategy” — Michael Calderone, Huffington Post

Perry displays varied stance toward crime” — Deborah Sontag, New York Times

Read more on PostPolitics.com

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