Cain bets that he can stay a Republican front-runner without acting like one

Three minutes and 15 seconds into the video clip that has become widely known as Herman Cain’s “oops” moment, the Georgia businessman offered this defense for flubbing a question on Libya: “Some people want to say, ‘Well, as president, you’re supposed to know everything.’ No, you don’t!”

Cain’s unapologetic rejoinder could just as well apply to his entire presidential campaign, which celebrates doing things differently so often that it has become a defining characteristic of his bid. Cain hasn’t traveled much to the early states. He has responded inconsistently to the sexual harassment allegations that plunged his campaign into turmoil two weeks ago. He has displayed a lack of knowledge on a variety of policy issues, sometimes contradicting himself in the same conversation.

Cain is making the unusual bet that in a strange GOP primary, he can remain a front-runner without acting like one. In recent weeks, his campaign has taken a few steps closer to normal: It has hired more staff members, brought in experts for candidate briefings and even tried to make Cain sleep eight hours a night. (A campaign spokesman said his Libya response was partly due to the fact that he had slept only four hours the previous night.)

But, for the most part, Cain is still acting like what he was a few months ago: a bluff, confident long shot who doesn’t care much about what he doesn’t know.

And, although his numbers have slipped nationally in several polls conducted since the onset of the harassment scandal, many of his supporters, apparently, agree with him — particularly in crucial Iowa, where Cain remains locked in a four-way tie for first place.

On Tuesday, the candidate took a rare swing through Iowa, an early-voting state where he has been largely absent and where he has built none of the grass-roots organization considered crucial to drawing out caucus-goers. He was met there with more questions about his Libya gaffe, which came during a videotaped interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Campaigning in Dubuque, Cain was asked how he learns about foreign policy and what he reads to keep informed about the news.

“I’ve had meetings with people like Dr. Henry Kissinger. I’ve had meetings with former [United Nations] ambassador [John] Bolton. I’ve had meetings with people who used to work in the Reagan administration on foreign policy. So there’s a lot of people that have a lot of knowledge, and I meet with them on a regular basis.”

On what he reads, Cain replied: “I read the Wall Street Journal. I read the USA Today. And I read sometimes my local paper. I also read some of the online publications, and I also read some of the special bulletins that I get from the Republican National Committee, which summarize a lot of this stuff.”

He then added, “So trust me.”

At another stop, Cain said he was kidding during the same Journal Sentinel interview when he said he had asked Kissinger to serve as his secretary of state in a hypothetical Cain administration.

“I was not serious about asking him,” Cain said. “I know he’s retired, but I was serious about seeking his counsel, and he was nice enough to say that I could seek his counsel some more. Which I treasure.”

Cain’s advisers say that some things have changed in an operation that had to transition from far back in the field to first place in the space of a few weeks. Cain’s staff has grown from 30 to 65 and has spread to a dozen states since the end of September, and the candidate now holds daily policy briefings with a core team of advisers. He also met with experts, such as Kissinger, Bolton and economist Art Laffer.

Midway through the harassment crisis, after Cain’s campaign first accused Texas Gov. Rick Perry and then a Washington reporter of spreading the harassment story, the candidate and his staff decided they needed some outside help. He hired Lin Wood, a high-profile lawyer from Georgia who represented Richard Jewell, an initial suspect in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing.

In an interview, Wood would not discuss the details of his advice, other than to say he encouraged Cain’s decision to hold a news conference last week at which the candidate denied all accusations of wrongdoing.

“It’s like a start-up business,” said spokesman J.D. Gordon, who, in keeping with Cain’s corporate image, is called the vice president for communications. “Mr. Cain has said that before. There are some hiccups along the way. We’ve corrected them quickly.”

Still, even as Cain bulks up in some ways, he continues to work off his own script. His Libya gaffe, for instance, took place during a quick swing through Wisconsin — not a crucial early state and by most estimates not a place where Cain should be spending precious time, with the Iowa caucuses so near.

Cain’s core team of advisers — Gordon, who wears a second hat as foreign policy and national security adviser; economics adviser Rich Lowry; and policy director Clark Barrow — have scant experience on the national political stage.

Barrow, based in Cain’s Atlanta campaign headquarters, has been with him the longest, having worked as his researcher when Cain hosted a radio show. One of the most powerful lessons of the presidential campaign, Barrow said, was realizing that Cain no longer had the autonomy to choose the topics that he would talk about, as he did on the radio.

The sexual harassment scandal, which Cain thought would go away because the allegations were anonymous, was a case in point, Gordon acknowledged. Some of Cain’s problems during that episode were also self-inflicted.

On Nov. 8, Cain’s campaign manager, Mark Block, told TV host Sean Hannity that the son of one of his accusers worked for Politico. Politico was the news outlet that broke news of the settlements resulting from the alleged harassment.

“We confirmed it that he does indeed work at Politico and that’s his mother, yes,” Block said.

That was incorrect. The journalist he was referring to, Josh Kraushaar, is not related to the woman, Karen Kraushaar, and he has not worked at Politico since June 2010.

Also this month, the Cain campaign released a TV ad in Iowa in which two farmers make what appear to be false claims about the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The EPA has suggested that they regulate the methane emissions coming out of our cattle,” one says. EPA officials have said they have no plans to do this.

“The EPA wants to regulate the dust on farmers,” another farmer says. Farmers in two states — Arizona and California — do face restrictions on dust. But in other places, the EPA has said it does not intend to alter the rules and force a new crackdown on dust.

None of it seems to matter to Cain’s most loyal supporters.

“He has the most natural Ronald Reagan optimism. Not the forced kind. Not the ‘Hey, look at me, I want to sound like Ronald Reagan,’ ” said Carey Baker, a gun-store owner and one of Cain’s state co-chairmen in Florida. “Just a natural optimism [and] can-do attitude.”

Staff writer Aaron Blake contributed to this report.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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