YPSILANTI, Mich. – A defiant Herman Cain mingled with voters here Thursday morning, trying jovially to move past the sexual harassment allegations that have consumed his presidential campaign by training his rhetorical fire on President Obama.
“How do you beat Obama? Beat him with a Cain!” Cain quipped to a table of supporters at the Big Sky Diner here. When reporters pressed him on what exactly he was suggesting with his remark, Cain said: “Cain. Herman Cain. C-A-I-N. Do I have to connect all the dots for you?”
Cain was upbeat as he addressed an enthusiastic overflow tea party crowd from behind the kitchen counter. He did not specifically address the allegations of harassment from former female employees, but he cast himself as the victim of a broader political and media establishment assault against his candidacy.
“I’m gonna be the president of the people and not of the politicians because, as you can tell, they’re starting to come after me,” Cain said. “They’re starting to attack me any and every way they can. Since they can’t kill the ideas, they’re trying to attack my integrity and my character. But the American people are not buying that. They are sick of gutter politics.”
Cain arrived aboard his campaign bus to the thumping sound of “I Am America,” the soundtrack to the viral video featuring his chief of staff, Mark Block, smoking a cigarette. As he walked through the parking lot on a chilly Michigan morning, one woman grabbed his hand and said: “You go, Herman! Stand up for yourself and keep going.”
“Oh, I will,” Cain said, before entering the diner and taking off his trademark Western-style black fedora. Cain expressed bemusement with the size of the crowd he had attracted – more than 100 people, many sipping coffee and some standing on booths -- at this gathering organized by the Willow Run Tea Party.
“I thought I was just gonna sit down with a couple of people and have some bacon and eggs,” Cain said.
His supporters were not shy about voicing their distaste for Obama or Cain’s Republican primary opponents. One man shouted: “The first real black man! The first real black man!” After Cain brought up Wednesday night’s CNBC debate, another man said: “Perry couldn’t remember nothin’!”
When one reporter asked Cain what he thought of Texas Gov. Rick Perry forgetting the third federal agency he wanted to cut from the government, Cain paused for a few seconds and moved on without comment.
The harassment accusations, which Cain has flatly denied, did not seem to bother many of his supporters here.
“It could be true, but people are trying to regulate human nature,” said Steve Lambert, 61, a scrap metal worker from Ypsilanti. “The woman said he made a move on him, she told him to stop and he did. What’s the problem?”
Cathy Upton, a 60-year-old physician from nearby Ann Arbor, said: “The mainstream media’s trying to distract us. I’d like to believe him. I assume he’s telling the truth.”
Cain said he had the will of the voters behind him. “That sleeping giant that we call we the people, it has awakened,” Cain said. “That sleeping giant has awakened and it’s not going back to sleep.”
Cain focused much of his 15-minute remarks on his signature tax plan.
“We are the only one that has put a bold solution on the table,” Cain said. “They keep shooting at it, they keep criticizing it and they can’t kill it, and the reason they can’t kill it is because the people own ‘9-9-9’ – and they can’t shoot straight.”
Cain had a few tense exchanges with reporters trailing him here. When one asked whether it was appropriate for him to have called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “Princess Pelosi” in the debate, Cain apologized. And he chastised the media for even asking the question.
“I apologize for calling her ‘Princess Pelosi,’ if that’s the biggest story you all want, okay?” Cain said, adding: “I remember when Speaker Pelosi called me and the tea party people ‘Astroturf’” I don’t remember anybody asking about that story.”
Asked why he had apologized, Cain said: “So you all can stop asking me about it, okay?”
A few seconds later, a photographer working for the tea party group became aggressive with a handful of reporters following Cain through the diner. “God, get over it,” she said. “God, you guys are crazy. You all are nuts.”