Herman Cain’s sexual harassment story is problematic on multiple levels for conservatives.

First, conservative talk show types and bloggers embarrass themselves by claiming this is a racist attempt to discredit an African American conservative. This matter, unlike the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, wasn’t raised for the first time years after the alleged incidents happened. We know there were claims and settlements. The women plaintiffs could have been motivated by many factors (e.g., the truth, monetary gain), but the claims were made and were investigated and money changed hands years before Cain emerged as a national figure.

The notion that this is a liberal plot to bring down Cain strikes me as just nuts. If there were a liberal conspiracy, why not wait until he got the nomination? If the claims surfaced now, isn’t it far more likely that any lead given to Politico came from a Republican adversary (and I’m not saying it did)?

The reflexive instinct of conservatives to circle the wagons when a conservative is accused of something bad is misguided. If he did what the women accused him of, is this the nominee they want? If he wrongly claimed ignorance of the settlement, is this the nominee they prefer? And if he knew this was a problem all along (at least for a couple of weeks while Politico was investigating), should they be concerned that his handling of this time bomb was amateurish?

Cain boosters should be comforted by at least one response. Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America, who earlier expressed concern about the accusations, e-mailed me: “Herman Cain did a great job of taking on the allegations of impropriety at the Press Club. He was believable and credible. Sadly, Anita Hill taught us that not all allegations are true. I think the next few days will be crucial for him. If nothing else comes out of the National Restaurant Association then I think the storm is over.”

I asked a GOP operative in Iowa how this would play there. He had two reactions. First, he stressed, “I think Iowans will give him a fair shake on this, rightly or wrongly, and take him at his word until it’s proven otherwise.” However, he also noted a pattern when Cain is faced with adversity: “Cain is an expert in the art of the simple. 9-9-9 is incredibly simple, and he’ll let the media and elite sweat out the details. It’s a part of his M.O. — take a 40,000-foot view, and anyone who questions just wants the status quo or is on a witch hunt, and he doesn’t have to answer for it.” That’s a telling criticism, highlighted by Cain’s performance at the National Press Club, when he had to drag an adviser over to answer a question about 9-9-9.

I don’t know whether voters will buy Cain’s story or whether the need to field questions for some time will hobble his campaign. But what is clear is that Cain plainly had no idea what running for president was all about. When he analogized at the Press Club his lack of knowledge of foreign policy to his lack of knowledge about pizza-making before he took the job at Godfather’s Pizza, one sensed that perhaps GOP voters might have second thoughts about whether a complete political novice is their best bet to beat President Obama.