Will Harassment Allegations Hurt Cain in Early Primary States?

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Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain leaves following a speech at the National Press Club, Oct.31, 2011 in Washington.

The sexual-harassment story enveloping Herman Cain is still unfolding, and its trajectory over the coming days will determine whether it winds up being a minor hiccup for Cain’s surging campaign or the beginning of its end. But there is no question that the allegations could mushroom into a crisis capable of felling the putative GOP frontrunner in early states like Iowa and South Carolina, where social conservative comprise a large segment of the GOP electorate.

Cain’s position atop the race is tenuous to begin with. His poll numbers reflect his soaring popularity with fickle primary voters, most of whom say they’re still shopping for a savior. In a  recent Des Moines Register‘s poll that showed Cain knotted with Mitt Romney at the front of the pack, just 25% of respondents said their minds were made up. In a CNN/Time/ORC survey released last week, 23% of respondents said they would definitely support their current first-choice candidate. 

When Politico dropped its scoop Sunday night, the immediate challenge for Cain, Republican insiders say, was to throttle the story by being truthful and transparent. Cain bungled this phase of the damage control operation, providing inconsistent accounts of what he knew about the reported settlements and when. “They’re prolonging the agony by mishandling the situation,” says Warren Tompkins, a Republican consultant in South Carolina. “It’s never the crime. It’s always the coverup. If you deal with these things straight up out of the box, you’ve got a better opportunity to weather the storm.”

Despite his shifting story, Cain appears to have been afforded the benefit of the doubt by the Iowans who flocked to his upstart candidacy. The Register followed up with more than 20 likely caucus-goers who professed support for Cain in the paper’s poll, and none said they had abandoned the former pizza mogul. The sample size is miniscule, but it attests to the favorable impression Iowa Republicans have of Cain, who notches the highest positive intensity scores of any candidate. “Herman Cain is the one candidate in the race that people want to like,” says Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated conservative radio host based in Des Moines.

Deace chalks up Cain’s popularity to a pair of positive attributes that he alone can boast.  “Number one, we would love to have an outsider. Number two, there are a lot of white conservatives tired of being called racist,” says Deace, who has not decided which candidate he will support. “People are giving him the benefit of the doubt because he’s an outsider and because he’s not white.” But beyond that, he adds, “once you get beneath the surface, there’s a lot of doubt.”

That doubt has been sowed by a series of puzzling policy statements that Cain has subsequently clarified or walked back. “What Herman needs to be most concerned about right now is he cannot have the narrative when candidates are going to caucuses that there are unanswered questions about Herman Cain,” says Bob Vander Plaats of the Family Leader, a prominent social-conservative organization in Iowa. “Will you negotiate with terrorists or won’t you? What is your stance on the sanctity of human life? What’s your real view on the marriage issue? As CEO, did you know there was a settlement or didn’t you know? If the narrative becomes all these questions about his position, a constant walking back of what he said, that’s going to be an issue.”

Among Iowa activists like Deace, who have grown weary of Cain’s missteps, the candidate’s tangled explanation of the allegations has amplified existing concerns about his slipshod ground game, his inability to retain staff in the state, and his penchant for spending time promoting himself elsewhere. “This story right here, he could probably get beyond,” Deace says. “You could say it’s another Clarence Thomas and get past it. But this adds to other problems. He’s given six different definitions of life in the last two weeks. His foreign policy knowledge – I’d say it’s shallow, but that’s an insult to shallow. He’s not what you think. He’s a bit of a mirage in the desert.”

Cain has steadfastly denied the harassment charges, and insiders say that caucus-goers will reserve judgment until the facts of the matter emerge. “Iowans are fair-minded and will give him a chance to explain his side of the story,” Tim Albrecht, the communications director for Iowa’s Republication governor Terry Branstad, wrote in an email to TIME. “If he comes to Iowa and answers these stories in a straightforward, forthright way, Iowans will respect him. If he changes his story and dances around this issue, his support here will collapse. Iowans want a serious-minded leader for the serious job of being president.”

And if Cain’s support were to dissipate? “Should Herman Cain crater, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are poised to greatly expand their support in Iowa,” Albrecht predicts. In fact, both candidates may already be angling to vacuum up the support spilling off the Cain bandwagon. For a full 24 hours, his presidential rivals remained conspicuously silent about the allegations — whether to preserve the momentum of a vulnerable opponent, or to avoid offending the legions of voters who genuinely like Cain. But on Tuesday, a Santorum adviser helpfully urged Cain’s campaign to “be forthcoming.” And when Cain canceled a Tuesday night appearance at an Atlanta-area GOP dinner to put out the fire, Gingrich helpfully stepped in, agreeing to speak in Cain’s stead. Gingrich will do so remotely, from Iowa — where he attended a Tuesday presidential forum that Cain skipped.