Cain’s intentions, however, remained unclear. His personal attorney, Lin Wood, said the candidate was deciding whether to drop out of the race. Cain’s campaign spokesman said he isn’t making that decision now. And Cain’s campaign manager, Mark Block, said in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday night that there is “no way he’s dropping out.” Block said the term “reassessment” was meant to imply a “strategic reassessment” and “not a reassessment of withdrawing” from the race.
But after months of dismissing criticism of his ideas and separate allegations of sexual harassment, Cain essentially was admitting something new: This one had hurt.
“With this latest one, we have to do an assessment,” Cain said. He denied the most recent allegation, as he has the others. “As to whether or not this is going to create too much of a cloud, in some people’s minds, as to whether or not they would be able to support us going forth.”
Cain said he would continue to campaign for the Republican nomination while he spends several days considering his chances.
Supporters who recently spoke with Cain painted a conflicting portrait: Some described him as upbeat and determined to press on. And in a confident speech on foreign policy in Hillsdale, Mich., on Tuesday night, he showed no signs of giving up.
In a fundraising e-mail sent Tuesday, Cain referred to the new allegation and said: “I am not deterred. . . . We will continue on this journey to make America great once again.”
But a different assessment was offered by an associate who said that, even nine days ago, Cain was resigned to the fact that his momentum had peaked and his campaign was losing steam.
“He was acutely aware of his own mortality,” said the associate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe what was characterized as a private conversation.
If Cain bows out of the race, the candidate most likely to benefit would be former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has surged in the polls as Cain has declined. With both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) having faded, Gingrich could make the case that he is the last, best hope for conservatives to challenge former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
“I think it benefits Newt because it is in Romney’s interests to have the conservative vote as widely dispersed as possible,” said Rich Galen, a former aide to Gingrich who is neutral in the current race.
Supporters on Tuesday’s conference call said they were unclear what would happen next — even after hearing from the candidate himself.
“They’re just trying to figure out, in the next few days, where this leads them,” said Scott Plakon (R), a Florida state legislator and a state co-chairman of Cain’s campaign. He added: “What that exactly means, I do not know.”
Several Cain campaign volunteers said they were willing to stick by the candidate.
“What if it is true?” said Niger Innis, a civil rights activist who said he has advised Cain’s campaign, speaking of the alleged affair. “This isn’t sexual harassment. If Herman Cain needs to apologize to anybody, it’s his wife — not anybody else.”
Innis said he doubted that Cain would drop out. Last weekend, before White’s accusation surfaced, Innis said, he had spoken with Cain about whether he would go on.
“He whispered to me. He said, ‘Niger, they thought they could scare me off. I don’t scare easily,’ ” Innis said.
In Citrus County, Fla., Dick Windle — Cain’s county campaign chairman — said he was puzzled by the allegations but hadn’t abandoned the candidate. Cain, he said, has “got the best message in my mind.”
Actually, Windle said, there are two candidates with great ideas: Cain and the new front-runner, Gingrich.
“Their message,” Windle said, meaning that of Cain and Gingrich, “seems to me to be the message that we need in this country.”
With Cain’s future in doubt, some observers said they believed that his uncommon campaign was nearing a very common end. After Cain vaulted in the polls with his ultra-simple “9-9-9” plan, he was barraged by the kind of allegations that have sunk other candidates.
That happened in the national spotlight that came with his success. Perhaps, the most challenging thing to happen to Herman Cain was that he became a front-runner.
Cain, 65, is a former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza. He built his campaign around his “9-9-9” plan to replace the current tax code. He brought a persona that was both familiar — he used homespun metaphors and talked at length about his battle with cancer — and deeply, dismissively confident.
Cain rose quickly in the polls: A CNN survey found his support at 3 percent in late August, but it jumped to 25 percent in October, nearly even with Romney. But then Cain’s moment began to slip away.
As a leading candidate, he faced scrutiny on issues beyond tax reform. Cain struggled to answer a question about U.S. intervention in Libya. He suggested that he might build an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Then he said he was joking about the fence. Then he suggested he wasn’t.
After these stumbles and the allegations that he sexually harassed four women in the 1990s, Cain’s support declined to 17 percent in the most recent CNN poll, as Gingrich surged into the lead.
On Tuesday, Gingrich said he had no comment about Cain’s pledge to reassess: “This must be a painful period for him and his family.” Bachmann, the only female candidate in the field, said Cain has no choice but to rethink his candidacy.
“I think they recognize that the support has really dropped out of their campaign because of those questions,” Bachmann told an Iowa radio host, referring to the allegations of harassment and of the affair.
Staff writers Aaron C. Davis, Nia-Malika Henderson, Peyton Craighill, Dan Eggen and Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.