HOUSTON -- Herman Cain refused Saturday night to answer questions about the sexual harassment allegations that have dogged his presidential campaign for the last week. "We are getting back on message, end of story," he said.
By prior agreement, the controversy that mired Cain all week was a verboten topic at a friendly 90-minute debate here with fellow Georgian and GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, hosted by a local tea party group. Cain and his staff made sure to keep it that way in post-debate press conferences -- his first public appearance since an attorney for one of his former subordinates at the National Restaurant Association issued a public statement on behalf of the woman, insisting she was sexually harassed by Cain a decade ago.
"Don't even go there," Cain warned a reporter who attempted to ask him about the statement by Joel Bennett, a lawyer for one of the women who received a settlement from the restaurant trade group after complaining of inappropriate behavior by Cain. "No gossip tonight," interjected an event spokeswoman.
At one point in the post-debate press conference, one reporter asked Cain: “Are you not gonna answer questions about this ever again, Mr. Cain, this sexual harassment stuff?”
Cain, with a grin, responded: “You got it.”
In the final moments of the debate, Cain alluded to the controversy when Gingrich asked him what has been the most surprising part of his run for president. “The nitpickiness of the media," said Cain to laughter and applause. "I expected to have to work hard, I expected to have to study hard. But I did not realize the fly-specking nature of the media when you’re running for president, especially when you start moving up in the polls. And so that has been the biggest surprise, because if there is a journalistic standard, a lot of them don’t follow it. And as a result too many people get misinformation and disinformation."
Reporters checking in prior to the debate were given a form admonishing them preemptively:
“It is reasonable for us to expect you to be guided accordingly as you ask your questions. You are journalists," the document said. "You know what we are saying. We respectfully request that you honor the finest tradition of this profession, and focus and report on reality, not gossip.”
Some reporters who violated the ground rules later found an email in their inboxes from Cain campaign manager Mark Block, who forwarded the Society for Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. Among other things, the code exhorts reporters to "seek truth and report it" and to "act independently."