Herman Cain faces sexual harassment claims. How much trouble is he in?

Allegations that Herman Cain acted inappropriately toward two female employees in the 1990s are just emerging, and the details could be key. But the allegations will test the Cain campaign.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain arrives to speak at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) in Washington, Monday. He refused to answer questions about allegations of sexual harassment at the event.

Herman Cain has risen from the lower tier of Republican presidential candidates to front-runner in a heartbeat of political time. The growth and intensity of his support has been a true American phenomenon. But now his position is at risk, as his campaign faces a crisis: a Politico report that Cain was accused of sexually suggestive behavior toward at least two female employees when he was head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.

The two women complained that Mr. Cain had subjected them to language and behavior they found uncomfortable, according to Politico. They received financial settlements in the range of five figures each and left the restaurant trade group, the article adds.

“Politico has confirmed the identities of the two female restaurant association employees who complained about Cain but, for privacy concerns, is not publishing their names,” said the story, which was written by multiple political reporters.

How much trouble is Cain in? Quite a bit, at the moment – though that could change, depending on where this story goes in the days to come.

First off, the Cain campaign’s handling of the story has not been adroit. Spokesman J.D. Gordon has blasted it, without denying its facts.

“Fearing the message of Herman Cain, who is shaking up the political landscape in Washington, inside-the-Beltway media have begun to launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain,” said Mr. Gordon.

Gordon has also said that Cain had told campaign officials that he was “vaguely familiar” with these charges, however.

Confronted directly on a Washington sidewalk, Cain himself ignored a question about the allegations, and asked a reporter whether he’d ever been accused of sexual harassment himself.

Yet the Politico piece is lengthy and detailed as to whether these harassment allegations occurred. Cain will have to deal with them directly at some point – in person, and probably at length. On Monday, Cain did say on Fox News that in the past he had been “falsely accused” of sexual harassment.

Second, Cain has few political allies to help fight through this mess.

His staff is undersized by national campaign standards. He hasn’t received many endorsements from establishment figures – something many of his supporters consider a badge of honor. He just doesn’t have many surrogates who will flood onto cable news chat shows to stand up for him.

Third, the Politico report suggests there was money involved. If true, the payment of financial settlements in these cases could appear damaging to ordinary voters. It’s one thing to have an underling complain about your behavior. It’s quite another to pay them to go away.

That said, details could matter here. At the top levels of US business, nuisance claims are made and settled every day, notes Jennifer Rubin on her conservative-leaning Washington Post blog “Right Turn."

But if Cain was a party to any payouts, he would have had to sign them, making his claim of “vague” memory of the incidents problematic, Ms. Rubin notes. Furthermore, we don’t yet know if there were other such cases, or whether any of the women who alleged poor behavior on the part of Cain actually filed a lawsuit or some other official action against him. If these things happened, Cain may have a much harder time getting past this incident.

Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative RedState blog and himself a former lawyer, notes that settlements of sexual harassment cases can reach into six figures, and that a five figure payout may be just “go away money.”

Mr. Erickson also raises the point of where the story came from. He implies it came from one of Cain’s political rivals – and only one of them has enough money and experience to have a fully developed opposition research arm. (We’ll fill in the dots here and say that person’s initials are “Mitt Romney.”)

“I think people are finally starting to take Herman Cain seriously,” writes Erickson.

Many of Cain’s supporters say the thing they like best about him is that he is not a politician and seems a true outsider. They may see the allegations of sexual harassment as a plot by the establishment to damage a perceived threat. It’s thus possible that the Politico story won’t cost him many votes from his base, after all.

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