In Ohio, Cain Rallies the Faithful Despite ‘Character Assasination’

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Tony Jones / The Enquirer / AP

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks during his first stop of an Ohio bus tour at the Cincinnati Marriott North in West Chester, Ohio, Nov. 30, 2011.

West Chester, Ohio

For all the world to see, Herman Cain is fine form. The crowd of 150, toting matching signs and bumper stickers, recites the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem before settling in to watch a five-minute “movie” on Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan. Afterward, staffers pass around a petition to get Cain’s delegates apportioned at the Republican National Convention next summer in Tampa. When the self-described national frontrunner arrives with his motorcade and Secret Service detail – only 20 minutes late – the adoring crowd goes wild, breaking out in a standing ovation and shouts of “Amen!” Outside of time, place and context, this is the perfect political event.

And then you realize that’s the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO is campaigning in West Chester, Ohio, 20 miles outside of Cincinnati, in November 2011; the Ohio GOP primary is tentatively set for June 12, 2012. With a month left before the first voting begins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Cain’s tour of Wisconsin and three stops in Ohio on Wednesday is more than a little baffling. Add to that the “character assassinations” Cain mentions in his stump speeches refer to a widening sex scandal — on top of prior sexual harassment charges, a  woman this week came forward alleging that she was Cain’s mistress for 13 years – and one has to wonder if this moment is as good as it’s going to get for Cain.

Cain’s Iowa director said on television they’ll have to wait and see by the end of the week if they’ll have enough money to go through with their final push in that early caucus state. Cain told his inner circle in a conference call on Tuesday that he was going to have to “reassess” the race and he told CNN that the decision was in his wife’s hands. Asked by reporters Wednesday in West Chester if he’ll stay in, Cain simply smiled and said, “I am in the process of reassessing. What does that mean? It means reevaluating.” When asked in Dayton, he said he’ll have a decision “within a few days.”

Certainly, Cain seems to be fading. When the first allegations of sexual harassment came out conservatives jumped to his defense. Rush Limbaugh labeled the accusations against Cain racist. And Cain raised millions of dollars online in solidarity. This time around, Limbaugh is noticeably silent and the Cain campaign hasn’t said a word about fundraising.

Cain’s crowds in Ohio were a mix of supporters and rubberneckers. “I live close by and you never know, this might be the moment he exits from the race,” says Keith Callahan, 54, a sales rep from West Chester. “I think it’s going to be [Mitt] Romney.”

Many supporters said the allegations of sexual misconduct didn’t affect their opinion of Cain, citing Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick accident and Bill Clinton’s various indiscretions. But it has given a few of them pause. “I’m probably leaning toward Herman Cain,” says Marina Schemmel, 21, a senior at the University of Dayton. “But if they’re true, that turns me off. I don’t want to support someone like that.” Added John Binger, 82, who was visiting friends in Dayton from Crossville, Tennessee: “I’d like to see him on the ticket still, but maybe as vice president. You never know what else might come out. I think it’ll hurt him with the evangelical vote no matter what.”

While most of the roughly 300 people at the packed Dayton event were still supporters, many shied away when asked if Cain will be the next President. “The charges have unglued a lot of Cain’s support,” says Jim Heath, a political analyst at Ohio News Network, chatting with Binger at the back of the Dayton event. “Folks no longer say, ‘When he’s President,’ but ‘I like his ideas.’”

To hear Cain tell it, his campaign of ideas is what’s going to get him elected, scandals be damned. “The only reason they’re attacking me personally is because they can’t attack my ideas,” Cain told the crowd in West Chester. “That’s why I need you to spread the word, speak to people directly – who needs the media? – and tell them about how I’ll change the country.” The crowd roared its agreement, leaping to its feet. And their support might have made a difference, too, if they were in Waterloo, Iowa, unhindered by doubts.