Herman Cain scrambles to toe the pro-life line on abortion

Herman Cain is learning that off-the-cuff remarks and demonstrated ignorance – even from a candidate who touts his lack of political experience – goes only so far. For social conservatives, that means abortion.

Brian Ray/AP
Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain arrives outside of Kinnick stadium in Iowa City, Iowa after riding the Hawkeye Express to campaign before Iowa's NCAA college football game against Indiana, Saturday, Oct. 22.

Herman Cain won a straw poll vote in Nevada Friday, edging out establishment favorite Mitt Romney by a couple of percentage points in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

It may have been the single – though largely inconsequential – bright spot in Cain’s week as he scrambled to answer criticisms about his “9-9-9” tax plan, his waffling on abortion, what he said was a “joke” about an electrified fence along the US-Mexican border, and his lack of foreign policy smarts (which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made fun of in her meeting this week with Afghan President Hamid Karzai).

Then there were the reports that Cain’s campaign spent some $100,000 in campaign contributions to buy copies of Cain’s books and pamphlets from the company owned by Cain and his wife – probably not a huge deal, but a speed bump that does have an ethical/legal tinge guaranteed to last at least one news cycle.

Election 101: 10 things you should know about Herman Cain

The lesson Mr. Cain is quickly learning is that off-the-cuff remarks and demonstrated ignorance – even from a candidate who touts his lack of elected experience as an advantage – goes only so far.

What’s the importance of an “insignificant” country like Uzbekistan, he’s said, if it doesn’t help create jobs in the US. (Both Bush and Obama administrations have seen Uzbekistan as important to US interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

He’s flip-flopped (or at least answered confusingly) about negotiating for the release of American prisoners held by terrorists, and he’s described his stance on foreign affairs as simply “an extension of the Reagan philosophy.”

“Reagan's philosophy, as you know, was peace through strength,” he said on Fox News. “My philosophy is peace through strength and clarity. We need to clarify who our friends are, clarify who our enemies are, stop giving money to the enemies and make sure that our enemies know who our friends are, that we are going to stand solidly behind.”

The elaboration did not clarify things for many people.

Saturday night, he has the chance to redeem himself on abortion when he speaks to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition banquet at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

He told CNN this week that he strongly opposes abortion, but that "the government shouldn't be trying to tell people everything to do, especially when it comes to social decisions that they need to make."

In cases of rape or incest, he said, “it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make.” That set off alarm bells among many social conservatives, for whom being against all abortions (including those to save the life of a woman) is a crucial litmus test.

“Herman Cain will have a rather quick test this weekend of whether he has been unable to erase some of the self-inflicted damage he's caused with Iowa social conservatives,” writes Maggie Haberman at “There is a broad sense that Cain has taken on some water in the state after the remarks, in which he essentially said in a CNN interview it's not up to government to tell women in cases of rape or incest whether they can have an abortion.”

"He's not gonna be able to charm his way through it," Iowa GOP activist Craig Robinson told Politico.

“He basically said, ‘I’m pro-life, but I don’t want to force my views on others,’” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, which describes itself as “a consistent, courageous voice in the churches, in the legislature, in the media, in the courtroom, in the public square … always standing for God’s truth.”

“That’s a pro-choice stance,” Vander Plaats told The Iowa Republican political web site. “That’s a Democrat view. That sounds just like John Kerry in 2004.”

As the Iowa caucuses approach – dominated as they are by social conservatives – being “just like John Kerry” is not the place Herman Cain wants to be.

Election 101: 10 things you should know about Herman Cain

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