Chief correspondent

Herman Cain’s presidential campaign may or may not recover from the controversy that has erupted over allegations of sexual harassment. But the episode is only one of a series of examples of a candidate who has shown himself to be unprepared for the rigors of a national campaign.

His fumbled handling of the sexual harassment allegations may become a textbook case of how not to handle a political crisis. The facts still are not known. If they eventually do become public, Cain’s contention that he was falsely accused may be proven true. But he has done little so far to help get the story to that point.

Given advance notice of 10 days by Politico, which first reported the charges, Cain and his campaign inexplicably had no immediate response. For the next 24 hours, as he staunchly denied the main allegations, Cain dribbled out more and more details of what he claimed to remember, sometimes directly contradicting what he had said only hours before. The more he’s said, the worse he’s made it for himself.

Cain’s verbal dexterity — and upbeat personality — have been the keys to his rise in the Republican nomination battle. His willingness to stand his ground in debates and his pro-business message have resonated far more widely than anyone expected when he first joined the race.

He prides himself on being an unconventional candidate. But at critical moments he has lacked the sure-footedness expected of a successful candidate. Unless he can repair that problem, his candidacy likely will face even stiffer headwinds.

The problem isn’t just related to the crisis of the moment. The same holds for his handling of substantive issues. Cain’s upbeat personality has moved him to the front of the Republican field, but he remains a work in progress as a prospective president. Repeatedly he has fallen back on the claim that because he doesn’t have all the information that a president has, he cannot say what he would do about certain problems.

His signature issue is his 9-9-9 tax plan, which has found a receptive audience among potential Republican voters. But he has struggled to fend off criticism that the plan would add a 9 percent sales tax on top of sales taxes people already are paying and that the overall proposal would produce far less revenue than he claims.

His response has been to criticize the critics for not understanding his plan. On the revenue estimates, it is Cain’s word, or campaign analysis, versus a series of others that disagree. On the impact of a national sales tax, it is Cain’s contention that there would be a general deflation in the cost of goods because hidden taxes would disappear in favor of his tax.

He has stumbled on foreign policy, either out of lack of knowledge or lack of clarity in his views. The latest examples came this week in the midst of the sexual harassment crisis. On Tuesday night, he was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News and ended up in a verbal joust with the host over his foreign policy views.

Cain called the Middle East the biggest area of concern in the world. O’Reilly asked him what he would do about Iran. “Let me tell you what I wouldn’t be doing in Iraq,” he said. “And that is, I wouldn’t be announcing and telling our enemy that we are going to pull out of Iraq.”

O’Reilly responded by noting that the withdrawal announced by President Obama came after the Iraq government would not meet the terms demanded by the Defense Department. “Well the Iraqi government did that,” O’Reilly said, “so we don’t have control over that.”

When O’Reilly returned to Iran, Cain said he would first develop a strategy for energy independence. O’Reilly countered, “That’s not going to … influence Iran one way or the other.” To which Cain replied, “Bill, work with me here.” His answer was that an energy independence plan would lower world oil prices by a third, putting pressure on Iran to fund its government.

O’Reilly also challenged Cain over his proposal to put more Aegis warships in the Persian Gulf, which the host suggested would provoke a response by the Iranians. “That would be perfectly all right,” Cain said, “because I believe we have a superior capability.”

Do you really want a shooting war, he was asked. “Well, I don’t want that,” he said. “But if they fire first, we are going to defend ourselves ... and they are no match for our warships.”

Earlier that night, when he appeared on Fox News’s “Special Report,” he got into an exchange on the same topic with columnist Charles Krauthammer, who noted that Cain’s idea of using the Aegis warships to deter Iran’s support of terrorism was flawed.

Cain said his proposal wasn’t intended to stop terrorist activity but to deter Iran’s “march toward having a nuclear weapon.” Krauthammer responded by saying, “I don’t see how Aegis affects even that at all.”

He also has gotten himself into trouble on abortion and is still trying to explain the apparent contradictions in his views. He has taken a classic position of the abortion rights movement by saying the ultimate decisions about an abortion should be made by a woman, her doctor and her family. He has also taken a staunchly anti-abortion position by saying abortion should be outlawed with no exceptions for rape or incest.

He explains the apparent contradiction by saying, “The point I was trying to make, if a situation exists where they may consider some other alternative, then how will the law prevent that? That was the one point I was trying to make.”

It is understandable that Cain doesn’t have answers to all the questions that are being thrown at him. He is in most ways a political newcomer not steeped in the policy discussions of an experienced politician. But he has now been in the race for many months. He has debated numerous times. He has done even more interviews.

Even if the sexual harassment issue proves to be a transitory problem — and there’s nothing to suggest it will disappear quickly — Cain will still need to demonstrate a surer grasp and an ability to master the learning curve that all successful candidates master.


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