In the Arena

Republican Romper Room: Cain and Perry Roil the GOP Race

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Presidential candidates Herman Cain, right, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, left, participate in a Republican Presidential debate Oct. 11, 2011 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

One of the difficulties of print journalism is that news just keeps happening, sometimes right after your deadline–and so it was last night. I had just put to bed a column about the accelerating foolishness of the Republican presidential campaign, which TIME subscribers can read here, when Herman Cain took things to a whole new level by accusing the Rick Perry campaign of leaking the sexual harassment story.

And, kaboom. This is something that happens very rarely in presidential politics.

The last time I remember was in 1988 when the Dukakis campaign leaked a tape of Joe Biden lifting generous portions of a speech made by the British Labour candidate Neil Kinnock. This had the effect of sinking Biden and crippling Dukakis–since the Duke of Righteousness felt the need to fire the staffers who leaked the thing, including his terrific campaign manager John Sasso, and thereby spent most of the rest of the year relying on his own political instincts which, unfortunately, were akin to those of a gnat.

In this case, Cain’s accusation could sink both his campaign and Perry’s. Cain’s scenario stomps on the plot being asserted by Rush Limbaugh and assorted wingnuts–that the harassment charges are a liberal attempt to sex-smear another conservative black man (see high-tech lynching; Clarence Thomas). I would suspect that there will be more like this from other right-wing stalwarts. There is now just too much smoke and a fair number of exploding firecrackers for Cain to maintain his lofty status.

As for Perry, my first thought when the Cain’s harassment story broke was: cui bono? Who benefits? Simple answer: Rick Perry, who needs to get this back to being a mano a mano race with Mitt Romney as quickly as possible. Multiple links between the Perry campaign staff and Cain have now been established. The mere suspicion that Perry launched this will be sufficient to do major damage to his campaign, which already had kamikaze written all over it: Perry’s most direct path to prominence was tearing down his competitors, which I assumed he’d accomplish with negative ads. As we learned in the Howard Dean-Dick Gephardt festivities in 2004, those sort of mudbaths often destroy both the slinger and slingee.

And so, this was probably the single best day of the campaign for Mitt Romney–who didn’t have to lift a finger as his two most significant challengers nuked each other. It was also not a bad day for Newt Gingrich, who is waiting in the wings…and there may have been some good vibrations for Rick Santorum as well.

It also means that they could probably put next Wednesday’s Republican debate on pay-per-view and draw a significant audience. It should be ruinous fun.