Cain Unable: Have Harassment Claims Spoiled the GOP’s Last Chance for Inspiration in 2012?

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at a Northern Virginia Technology Council meeting in McLean, Virginia, Nov. 2, 2011.

At the lowest point of his quixotic campaign for president, Herman Cain burst into song, bringing a baritone rendition of an old Dottie Rambo gospel classic to the National Press Club. “He looked beyond all my faults,” crooned the man leading most polls for the 2012 Republican nomination. “And saw my needs.”

Cain stayed in key, even hitting his high notes, but his audience of political reporters was not going to look past his faults without first gathering more facts. Just hours earlier, Politico reported that two women had accused Cain of inappropriate sexually suggestive behavior when he led the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. Both received financial payouts in connection with the incidents, in exchange for agreements not to discuss the matter publicly.

(PHOTOS: Herman Cain Through the Years)

The 72-hours that followed this disclosure unfolded like a case study in bad damage control, the Rambo rendition notwithstanding. On Sunday night, a Cain spokesman denied the article’s facts outright to the Associated Press. By Monday afternoon, at the Press Club, Cain said the claims were real but that he was innocent of sexual harassment, and “unaware of any sort of settlement.” A few hours later, on Fox News, Cain said, “Yes, there was some sort of settlement” and that it was “maybe three months salary,” for one of the women. (According to Wednesday’s New York Times, it was actually a full year’s pay.) She had been offended, Cain continued, when he compared her height with that of his wife, among other incidents he later characterized as “so ridiculous I don’t even remember what they are.” When asked by a Fox anchor if he had a “roaming eye,” Cain, who has been married since 1968, joked, “I enjoy flowers like everyone else.” On Wednesday, a third accuser came forward, alleging that Cain had made unwanted advances including a private invitation to his corporate apartment.

For any other presidential frontrunner in any other campaign year, such a sequence of events would be catastrophic. But Cain is not just any candidate. From the start, he has sold himself as something different, a “bold” businessman alternative to the stodgy politicians that tend to run for office. In the tradition of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, he has tapped into the national yearning for something new, a break from the current cast of ineffective or insincere political professionals. “There’s a difference between a typical politician and a businessman, which means that there’s a difference between Herman Cain and those vying for the Republican nomination,” Cain declared at the Press Club.

That claim will now be tested. One of the women who accused Cain of sexual harassment said on Tuesday, through a lawyer, that she would like the National Restaurant Association free her from her promise not to disclose the details of the alleged harassment. “She’s been very upset about this since the story broke last Sunday because Mr. Cain has been giving the impression she came out and made false allegations,” the attorney, Joel Bennett, told CNN on Tuesday. “Once we hear from the restaurant association what she’ll do if they’ll waive the confidentiality.”

The association has yet to respond, and Cain has so far resisted calls for him to ask the association to disclose all of its records in the case. “As far as we’re concerned, you know, enough said about the issue,” he said Monday at the Press club. “There’s nothing else there to dig up.” As a factual matter, Cain is wrong. The details of what misdeeds the women alleged remain unreported, which threatens to leave Cain playing the role of the typical politician he distinguishes himself from on the stump. As he tries to inspire the country to a brighter future, he remains unwilling to face his past.

The newest problems only add to other burden’s Cain has been shouldering in recent months. Despite his much vaunted business background, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza has rolled through staff like dough, losing his campaign’s first communications director, two sets of organizers in Iowa and his New Hampshire coordinator. In early October, he took time off from the early voting states for a book tour through regions with no strategic value. His chain smoking campaign manager, Mark Block, who previously paid $15,000 in fines for campaign finance violations in Wisconsin, was recently accused of setting up an outside group that illegally subsidized Cain’s early travel, a situation that Cain now says he is investigating.

Cain’s frequent, free-wheeling flubs on the campaign trail have also done him few favors. He offended national security hawks when he told CNN he would trade prisoners at Guantanamo Bay if Al Qaeda took U.S. hostages, a claim he later rescinded. He turned off some social conservatives by saying government should not prevent abortions in cases or rape or incest, a position he also reversed later. He said he might electrify the southern border fence to keep out illegal immigrants, then said he was only joking, only to add that he would not rule out electrification. At the second candidate debate, he quoted “a poet” with this bit of verse: “Life can seem impossible, but it’s never easy when there’s so much on the line.” They were lines from the Power of One, the theme song to Pokémon: The Movie 2000 by the disco queen Donna Summer.

But none of this has so far dented Cain’s rise. He now leads nationally, with 30% of voter support in a new Quinnipiac poll, and is the frontrunner in Iowa and South Carolina. His campaign aides, meanwhile, have argued that the sexual harassment scandal could actually be a boost, as conservatives react defensively to an attack by the beltway press. “We signed 40 precinct captains yesterday and we had signed 25 on Friday,” said Steven Grubbs, his recently-hired Iowa chairman, a day after the scandal broke. Cain told radio talk show host Laura Ingraham that online campaign contributions peaked that same day, as he bounced from network to network changing his story. “Faced with an uninspiring candidate with a well-organized campaign and an inspiring candidate with a less well-organized campaign, I choose the latter,” says Scott Plakon, a state representative in Florida on the Cain payroll.

Cain’s inspirational qualities are difficult to overstate, in a year when inspiration has been a fleeting commodity on the campaign trail. Put him in just about any Republican room and he can win the crowd, which is more than can be said for the other potential nominees, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In televised debates, he fills his 60-second answers with simple, declarative statements, delivered with the sort of brio that GOP voters now seek. But despite his protestations, this ability that has little to do with his business record at Godfather’s, a minor pizza chain that he left 16 years ago, having earned praise for a marketing campaign offering two “Big Value” pies for $12.

Rather, they are talents that he developed after leaving the pizza world, when he founded a company called T.H.E. Inc., or The Herminator Experience, and began writing inspirational self-help books and doing ��leadership consulting.” For years, he has traveled the country, hocking $5 pamphlets like “Leadership Requires Leadership,” and books with titles like “Success is a Journey,” and “Speak as a Leader.” Instead of pizza, he quite literally sold inspiration for a living. In more recent years, after a failed 2004 run for Senate, he has shifted this same enterprise away from the management to politics, hitching his wagon to the Tea Party, and coming up with simple ways to brand conservative ideas in the talk radio world. His 9-9-9 plan, which would institute a 9% tax on sales, personal income and corporate income, has the ring of a pizza commercial. His foreign policy platform can be summarized in five words, “Peace through strength and clarity.” The details are less clear.

Now, with the still developing allegations over sexual harassment, his talents may be hitting their limits. “What we love about Herman Cain is he’s immensely likable. We love that he speaks off the cuff and he’s not scripted,” says Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent social conservative leader in Iowa. “But there’s a danger there. You can’t always be walking this stuff back.”

With reporting by Alex Altman