DES MOINES — Iowa Republicans are largely playing down the allegations of sexual harassment by business executive and GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, decrying it as another example of the “liberal media” taking on a popular conservative.
“The current Cain sexual harassment issue doesn’t ring true and is a little too convenient, timing-wise,” said Julie Roe, who said she is considering backing the former Godfather’s Pizza executive in the January caucuses.
Stephen Jackel, a retired teacher who is supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said, “I think Herman Cain is being given a bum rap.”
Steve Deace, a longtime Iowa conservative activist and talk radio host, said that for him, “like many conservatives, it’s hard to resist the temptation of believing this is just another character assassination by the liberal media.”
But Deace, who has also not decided whom he is supporting, added, “On the other hand, there have been too many red flags about Cain in the past few weeks to just dismiss it without a careful vetting.” Deace has criticized recent Cain remarks that seemed to suggest the candidate backs abortion rights, although Cain has insisted that he is opposed to them.
Some Cain supporters in Iowa said they accepted his explanations and denials and even saw a way that the allegations might help his already surging campaign here. A poll released over the weekend by the Des Moines Register showed him effectively tied for the lead with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in Iowa, which will vote on Jan. 3 in the first contest of the GOP nomination process.
“It’s one of those things that happens when a candidate starts going up in the polls: Everybody starts sniping at you,” said Roger Burdette, a freelance photographer here who is volunteering for Cain.
Asked about the allegations, Burdette said, “My wife and I have met him [Cain] on four different occasions. I believe him to be an honest and sincere man. If Herman says it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen.”
Unsurprisingly, his campaign aides here are also playing down the controversy.
“I think it’s having the reverse impact,” said Lisa Lockwood, his Iowa communications director. “It’s been no negative impact; people see it for what it is — he’s in the lead and he’s not suppose to be leading in the polls, so he’s going to get attacked.”
Larry Tuel, Cain’s Iowa state director, said, “People are calling us and saying it’s an attack from another campaign or someone else, and as a result, more people are reaching out to help us.”
The candidate was, as usual, not in the state. Cain has surged ahead of several of his rivals in Iowa with a very unorthodox approach: He rarely shows up here. While five other candidates appeared at a forum on the economy in Pella on Tuesday, Cain and Romney chose not to attend. Cain was in Washington for a series of media appearances.
But as the attention swirled around the Cain allegations, the other Republican candidates used the Pella event to criticize President Obama on nearly every issue and repeat their calls for reduced taxes and regulation.
The event, sponsored by the Republican-leaning National Association of Manufacturers, was not a debate: The candidates each took questions for 15 minutes from a moderator and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who is also a Republican. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), Perry and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) participated.
“This president of the United States, he’s at war against the coal industry,” Perry said.
Branstad did criticize Cain, but not about the sexual harassment allegations.
“The ones that weren’t here were the ones that missed out. This was a great opportunity,” Branstad said of the forum. He added, “it was unfortuate that Gov. Romney and Herman Cain weren’t here.”
Concerning the sexual harassment claims, Branstad said he believed that people in high-profile positions, such as Cain, face the potential for these kind of accusations. “I think Iowans will carefully look at the real situation and not jump to any conclusions,” Branstad said.