His campaign's survival in question, Herman Cain plowed ahead Wednesday in an effort to move past a woman's allegation that they had a longtime affair. But he acknowledged the toll was rising and said he would decide by next week whether to drop out of the Republican race.
Publicly, there were no signs that the former pizza company executive was calling it quits in his campaign for the presidential nomination. In fact, it was just the opposite: Aides were moving ahead with plans for events in New Hampshire, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia and prepared to launch a fresh round of TV ads in Iowa.
And Cain himself, on a one-day bus tour of Ohio, insisted he was seeing "a groundswell of positive support" after the latest allegation threatening his campaign. Still, he acknowledged "we are re-assessing and we are re-evaluating" in light of the woman's account, which followed accusations of sexual harassment by other women in recent weeks.
In an interview on Fox News late Wednesday, Cain said the controversy has taken an "emotional toll" on his wife, Gloria.
"I've got to think about my family first, especially my wife," Cain said. "This is why we are reassessing."
He said he would exit the race if the price proved too high and he would make a decision by the middle of next week at the latest.
At his campaign stops, he renewed what has become a familiar defense: that he is the victim of attacks by liberals and the establishment, who are threatened by his outsider appeal.
"They want you to believe that with another character assassination on me that I will drop out," a defiant Caintold a crowd of about 200 in Dayton. The boisterous crowd greeted him with shouts of "no!" and "boo!"
"One of the reasons they are trying to shoot me down and tear me down is the strength of my message that resonates with the American people," he said.
Cain drew enthusiastic crowds in three appearances in the state. Though there were signs that some in early voting Iowa and New Hampshire were reconsidering their support — and political veterans were beginning to suggest his campaign's days were numbered — some backers here said they were deeply skeptical of the mounting allegations.
"I absolutely trust the character of the man. No man is perfect, but I just don't believe it," said Pauline Clark, 80, from Xenia, Ohio. She urged Cain to "tough it out."
George Phillips, of Beavercreek, said he was sticking with Cain because of his ideas and management experience, saying: "I just like him, and he certainly seems to understand the economy." He added: "It seems funny that every time a candidate rises up, something pops up against him."
And Jim Stansbury, who drove two hours to West Chester from his home in Louisville, Ky., to show his continued support, suggested that Cain's enemies were behind the allegations surfacing and called them "an orchestrated event." Though Sainsbury said Cain's base of support remains solid, he allowed that the accusations could make it more difficult to persuade undecided voters to get behind the candidate.
Cain's latest turmoil comes just five weeks before the first votes are cast in the state-by-state march to the nomination. He's spent a month battling several sexual harassment accusations, which took a toll on both his standing in polls and, supporters say, his fundraising. Prominent conservatives who rushed to his defense when the first allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior surfaced were all but silent after the affair accusation. At least one New Hampshire backer — state Rep. William Panek — switched his allegiance to aCain rival. And Cain's campaign has lost some precinct-level supporters in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa.
Among political operatives, however, the perception was setting in that Cain's troubles were causing irreparable harm to his bid.
"I don't see how they walk away from the damage that's been done and emerge as a viable primary candidate," said Rick Wilson, a longtime GOP consultant based in Florida. "All these things about Herman Cainkeep coming out drip, drip, drip, and they're not handling it well. And now conservative Republicans have another place to go: Newt Gingrich."
Dan McLagan, a veteran GOP strategist based in Atlanta, agreed, saying: "Cain is like a zombie at this point: he's dead but he does not appear to have noticed and has kept on walking. His support is all moving to Gingrich and, at some point, he's going to look back and see that he is grand marshal of a one-man parade."
Indeed, former House Speaker Gingrich has been the beneficiary — in polls, at least — of Cain's slide in the month since it was disclosed that the National Restaurant Association paid settlements to two women who claimed Cain sexually harassed them while he was president of the organization. A third woman told The Associated Press that Cain made inappropriate sexual advances but that she didn't file a complaint. A fourth woman also stepped forward to accuse Cain of groping her in a car in 1997.
Cain has denied wrongdoing in all cases.
The latest furor came Monday when Atlanta-area businesswoman Ginger White, 46, accused Cain of a consensual sexual relationship that spanned more than a decade and ended this year before he became a White House candidate.
The candidate has denied any such affair, and in a letter addressed to "patriots and supporters" called her allegations "completely false" and labeled her "troubled."
"It's very disappointing that he would call me troubled and, you know, it's unfortunate," White said Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
As Cain was greeted warmly at stops in Ohio, top aides huddled privately to map out a strategy to get past the allegations. Cain has told his top supporters that his campaign must determine whether he will have the financial and grassroots support to move ahead.
He was holding an event in Manchester, N.H., Wednesday evening and planned to campaign in Tennessee on Thursday. A rally was planned Friday in Rock Hill, S.C. And an email to supporters said Saturday's planned opening of a new campaign headquarters in Atlanta to house volunteer efforts was still on.
"He's going to be here a lot going forward," Cain's South Carolina state director William Head said, adding that the Cain campaign had sent no signal it was in retreat.
"I think the most effective thing is for people here to get some time with him. When people hear Mr. Cain, they are reassured," Head said.
In Iowa, Cain's state chairman Steve Grubbs said he was preparing a busy December schedule beginning with a Dec. 10 debate in Des Moines. And Grubbs said Cain, who has not aired any campaign ads in Iowa since last week, will resume advertising Friday with a new spot that asserts that electing Cain would mean putting a veteran CEO in the White House, not a politician.
"The campaign has authorized us to go back on the air," Grubbs said, "and that is a very big signal to everyone who is concerned about the viability of the campaign."