If harassment claims sink Herman Cain, which GOP rival will benefit?

As Herman Cain's response to sexual harassment claims continues to evolve, there’s no guarantee that his popularity will slip, even now. Will his rivals be able to lure his supporters?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain answers questions at the National Press Club in Washington, Monday. Denying he sexually harassed anyone, Cain said Monday he was falsely accused in the 1990s while he was head of the National Restaurant Association.

All along, Herman Cain has been saying, “Let Herman be Herman.”

If that means continuing to tell an evolving story about the sexual harassment claims he now acknowledges he faced as chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, it does not bode well for his presidential campaign.

But there’s no guarantee that Mr. Cain’s support – enough to put him at or near the top in polls of Republican voters – will slip, even now.

Cain is saying the fact that the restaurant group paid two women modest settlements to get rid of the harassment charge back in the 1990s as evidence that the case was not serious.

If no more explosive details come out, the story will likely fade.

But potentially more damaging to Cain than the harassment charges themselves is his handling of the story. This is especially true because the campaign knew the story was in the works for 10 days before it was published in Politico.

Part of Cain’s appeal has been his management experience. This episode raises major red flags both about his ability to manage a crisis and about his ability to surround himself with an effective team of advisers.

“Forget about the 3 a.m. phone call, he’s not ready for the 9 a.m. phone call,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

And if more damaging information about Cain comes out, then his supporters may start shopping for another candidate who is not Mitt Romney, the other front-runner in the presidential primaries. Mr. Romney is seen as the “establishment” candidate in the race, a moderate at heart who takes conservative positions out of opportunism, not conviction.

If Cain supporters start considering the non-Romney alternatives, and determine there’s no one they can support, “then maybe they go to Romney,” says Mr. O’Connell, chairman of the conservative Civic Forum PAC.

Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, thinks the sexual harassment story probably means the beginning of the end of the Cain surge. The likely beneficiary, he writes, is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who earlier sank to single digits in the polls after bad debate performances. But Governor Perry remains viable, given his fundraising and organizational prowess.

“It’s a decent bet that the GOP race will return to how it was after Perry stumbled but before Cain picked up steam,” Mr. Cook writes in National Journal Daily. “Perry has enough going for him to be the conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney. Whether he can actually overtake the former Massachusetts governor is another matter, even though two-thirds of the GOP is more ideologically in tune with him than with the more ‘old establishment,’ less-conservative Romney.”

Cook doesn’t mention the video of Perry’s speech in New Hampshire Friday, in which the Texan delivers rambling, at-times silly, remarks before a conservative group. The video of excerpts has gone viral, with more than 500,000 views on YouTube, and has raised questions about Perry’s readiness for higher office.

So who’s left? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is getting a second look, after some strong debate performances. Libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul of Texas maintains the fervent support of his 9 percent, but is hard-pressed to build on that. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota has faded, and is facing calls to drop out even from tea party activists. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum remains at 2 percent.

The one other candidate with a typical presidential-level resume is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. But he has failed to catch on with voters, as a moderate in a conservative cycle. His polling is even worse than Mr. Santorum’s. Even his daughters are getting more buzz with their Twitter antics.

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