Well, that didn’t last long. In the latest twist to the Republican presidential melodrama, businessman Herman Cain virtually overnight went from basking in the glow of his new frontrunner status in Iowa to embattled candidate coping with embarrassing questions about whether he engaged in sexual harassment when he was a lobbyist for the restaurant industry.
Suddenly, questions about the effects of his trademark 9-9-9 flat tax plan and other proposals for jump-starting the economy have given way to queries over whether he engaged in “sexually suggestive behavior” towards at least two female employees when he headed the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
After dodging questions about his alleged inappropriate conduct and a reported financial settlement that led to the women leaving the trade association, Cain appeared on Fox News late this morning and then before the National Press Club to flatly deny the charges.
“I have never sexually harassed anyone,” he said at a press club luncheon. “Number two, while at the restaurant association, I was accused of sexual harassment – falsely accused, I might add. And when the charges were brought, as the leader of the organization, I recused myself and allowed my general counsel and my human resource officer to deal with the situation, and it was concluded after a thorough investigation that it had no basis.”
As far as a settlement, he said, “I am unaware of any sort of settlement,” adding that “I hope it wasn’t for much because I didn’t do anything.” NBC News says it has confirmed that one woman received a settlement from the National Restaurant Association, though it did not name her or disclose her position at the trade group.
It is far from clear whether this contretemps will derail or cripple the surging candidacy of Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO. Cain's shrewd marketing of his “9-9-9” plan to supplant the federal tax code has taken a back seat to this looming controversy. And even though his impressive and good-natured debate performances have placed him in a statistical dead heat with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination according to some polls, any hint of scandal can eclipse his momentum. Since he won a Florida straw poll on Sept. 24, Cain has drawn standing-room only crowds, appeared on the cover of Newsweek, has attracted donations at a rate of $1 million a week, and just yesterday finished first in the latest Iowa poll from the Des Moines Register with 23 percent support, one percentage point ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
But that was yesterday. This morning, Cain was hounded by reporters and camera crews during an appearance at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., where one member of the audience stood up and described the Politico story as “a cloud hanging over this” event. Cain dismissed the comment, saying, “I’ll take all the arrows later.”
Cain’s campaign manager, Mark Block, appeared on MSNBC and flatly denied that Cain harassed anyone. “Herman Cain has never sexually harassed anybody, period. End of story,” Block said in an interview on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown. But when asked about the financial settlements reported by Politico, Block stopped short of denying them, saying he was not “personally aware” of any settlements.
Cain’s s abrupt reversal of fortune underscores another extraordinary dynamic of the Republican presidential campaign this year – which is Romney’s unfailing good luck in fending off serious challengers to his frontrunner status.
Romney has a lot going for him, including a huge campaign war chest, solid credentials as a businessman and leader, and debating skills that would enable him to go toe-to-toe with President Obama in high profile debates during the general election. Even if Cain currently enjoys a slight lead in Iowa, Romney is leading in two well-regarded polls in New Hampshire, which will hold the first major primary of the campaign season.
But the former governor leaves many Republican conservatives cold, and his frequent flip-flopping on issues -- most recently on state employee bargaining rights and air pollution control – has raised doubts about his conservative bonafides. Among those who say they “definitely” plan to vote in the Iowa caucuses, Romney is at just 10 percent support, compared with Cain’s 27 percent.
And yet Romney seems to be protected by some sort of invisible shield that deflects or foils even the most formidable of challengers. “I think Mitt Romney seems to have a supply of Republican Kryptonite,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. “He’s able to basically wards off all of these challengers, certainly not by his overwhelming force of personality or being swept up in a great tide of personality, but rather because he had people around him who tend to self destruct.”
One of his biggest fears was that former Alaska governor Sarah Palin would hop into the race after months of tormenting Romney with tantalizing statements and forays into Iowa and New Hampshire, but she finally announced she wouldn’t run. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota appeared to be the darling of the Tea Party and Republican conservatives in Iowa – that is, until Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race and briefly dazzled party conservatives. But Perry’s near-pathetic performance in his first couple of debates and his clumsy, indirect threats to dismantle Social Security sent him tumbling to nearly the bottom of the field in the polls.
And now Cain is trying desperately to put out a fast-growing political brushfire over the Politico revelations that threaten to topple his campaign. Baker noted that with Cain’s categorical denial that any harassment ever took place, “he placed himself in a very perilous situation, because if there is any evidence there was a settlement and the settlement involved him, he would be caught in a bald face lie. I don’t know if it would be fatal, but it would be a serious injury.”