GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain raised record campaign cash this week in the wake of reports that he was accused of sexual harassment by two women while chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, but his candidacy is in free fall.
The hapless nature of Mr. Cain’s response has underscored existing questions about his leadership abilities and readiness for a pressure-filled national contest – not to mention his fitness to run the country. These swirling doubts, perhaps even more than the details behind the allegations, could sink his hopes.
Cain’s only shot at redemption, some campaign watchers suggest, is to put the kibosh on the media frenzy around the story by asking the National Restaurant Association to release the two women involved from their nondisclosure agreements with the group. This would free them to speak publicly, which at least one of the women desires, her lawyer told the Washington Post, and allow a fuller rendering of what transpired.
In a best-case scenario, the move could convey a measure of maturity, gravitas even, in the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. It would also likely open the inevitable, if also sometimes prurient and unjust, stream of reporting about the women. How credible are they? Cue the shift in focus from Cain.
“I don’t think he has any choice,” says Dean Spiliotes, civic scholar at Southern New Hampshire University, in Manchester. “If he tries to couch this as it’s not his decision as to whether they speak out, I think that hurts him.”
Presumably, Cain knows what happened, despite his hazy rendering of events. He told Fox News that he recalls comparing the height of one woman with that of his wife. Would that be enough for the National Restaurant Association to fork over $35,000, a year’s salary, according to a New York Times report released last night? The calculation, then, for Cain in weighing whether to call for the National Restaurant Association to terminate the nondisclosures is if the details are mild enough to overcome.
“If the conduct was inappropriate language and his sexual conduct merely suggestive, it would make political sense to get this out in the open fast, so that he can take the hit and it will gradually go away,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “Cain needs to find a way to stop the drip-drip-drip of scandal reporting.”
The longer the story persists, the more likely Cain’s support will suffer in key early-primary states. Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, says voters like what they’ve seen of Cain in the televised national debates but that Cain's polling numbers aren’t solid. He’s still too new. Too untested, as this episode evidences.
“This story could do a lot of damage to his standing here,” Mr. Scala says.
Real Clear Politics’ polling average shows Cain out front of the unsettled GOP primary field as of Oct. 31, the day Politico broke the harassment story. He led with 26 percent of the vote to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 24 percent and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 10 percent.
For those numbers to hold, Mr. Sabato suggests, it’s time for Cain to show some executive leadership and decisiveness.
“Cain could look gallant and also help himself by finding a way to bring down the curtain on this sad episode,” Sabato says, adding, “remember, that’s if the information is damaging but not incinerating.”