Herman Cain: Will his press conference help?

Herman Cain is on the defensive after being accused this past week of sexually harassing four women. His press conference Tuesday could help clear the air – or it could make things worse. 

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    Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington last month.
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When GOP presidential contender Herman Cain faces off with journalists later this afternoon, will the jousting help him weather the political storm that has put his long-shot candidacy in jeopardy?

The Scottsdale, Ariz., press conference is Mr. Cain's first session with reporters since allegations that he made sexual advances toward women during his time as chief of the National Restaurant Association first surfaced on Oct. 31.

In the past, some politicians have fallen prey to the ‘he said, she said’ nature of this type of conversation and the subsequent firestorm that develops. Think Gary Hart, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner. But others – Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger – have still gained office with their reputations intact. Relatively speaking.

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The question with Cain is whether the same rules apply. He’s not a known quantity, and the Republican primary electorate, so far dissatisfied with other candidates seeking the nomination, have been smitten of late with the brash businessman, giving him front-runner status in several national polls.

Yet several political analysts suggest that this afternoon's interrogation could be a crucial moment in Cain's campaign, particularly when it comes to persuading women voters – so central to success in presidential campaigns – that he is worthy of the post. 

“This press conference is long overdue,” says David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “It needs to be a long, take-all-questions session that seeks to burn out this story. Try to get reporters to deal with it once and then move on to something else.”

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Professor Yepsen says Cain’s dodginess on what transpired – he has denied any wrongdoing but appeared inconsistent on the details – has necessitated the meeting with reporters. It’s a risky move, he says, but similar to Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro’s decision in 1984 to address brewing questions about her husband’s business dealings.

“The press conference is a defining moment for [Cain] to clear the air,” Yepsen says. “If he handles it well, it could actually help him. Do poorly, and it will continue to hurt.”

Reports of inappropriate behavior with four women have emerged during the last week, but only one individual – Chicagoan Sharon Bialek – has offered a public statement. Until the appearance of Ms. Bialek, who is making the talk-show rounds today, Cain’s campaign failed to provide clear responses to the reports, seeming to hope the matter would fizzle without a clear explanation from the candidate.

But Bialek, with celebrity attorney Gloria Allred in tow Monday, offered detailed allegations of forceful groping by Cain during a 1997 meeting she requested to discuss employment opportunities. The Cain campaign has denied Bialek’s recollection of events, and in statements released Tuesday – perhaps previewing Cain’s remarks later in Arizona – sought to turn attention to Bialek’s credibility, highlighting her financial struggles and involvement in a paternity suit.

Cain’s press conference appears to be an attempt not only to counter Bialek but, even more importantly, win in the court of public opinion. “Right now it’s not looking good when you have a person who has given her name and a face to the other side of the story,” says Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “They know this is extremely high stakes and that his candidacy is on the line.”

The episode has lost Cain a critical week of campaigning just two months before voters in Iowa and New Hampshire cast their ballots, Mr. Bonjean says. It has also detoured the Republican primary contest – with Cain’s rivals reluctant to weigh in on the charges against him but distracted by questions about the controversy. And as Cain has flailed, some polls have started to shift.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, in the field before Bialek emerged but after the scandal broke, shows Cain’s likability has taken a hit. Some 35 percent of respondents have a negative opinion of Cain, almost double the 18 percent who weighed in similarly in the October poll. But the poll also shows that 54 percent of Republicans say they aren’t concerned about voting for Cain after the allegations.

Campaign watchers say the antiestablishment nature of the Cain juggernaut might help him.

“The people who love Herman Cain hate the media, hate Wall Street, hate big government, and hate politics as usual,” says John Feehery, a Republican commentator and the president of Quinn Gillespie Communications in Washington. “They see this attack as coming from the media, and they see conspiracies around every corner. They need more evidence before they see Cain as damaged goods.” 

After the press availability, Cain should do more of what he's already doing, Mr. Feehery says. On Monday night, he visited "Jimmy Kimmel Live." He could turn to Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, or Jimmy Fallon next – using personality to woo the public. 

When Mr. Kimmel asked Cain how his day had been Monday, the easygoing candidate said: “All things considered, I’m still alive.”

Others suggest there’s nothing Cain can offer tonight that would convey he’s ready to lead the nation – or seasoned enough to face President Obama. Cain has had success selling himself, but character counts for voters, and women – remember soccer moms and Wal-Mart moms – tend to carry enormous sway each quadrennial November.

“What this incident has demonstrated is that ... as far as being able to maneuver in the political arena, his lack of experience is quite glaring,” says Ron Christie, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. “And to this end, I think the damage might already be done.”

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