ADEL, Iowa – Mike Baker was more interested in getting seconds of homemade chili than he was in talking about the sexual harassment scandal hovering over Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.
“Inappropriate behavior could be anything," said the 52-year-old machine operator, among dozens of voters at a local Republican Party gathering Thursday night at the county fairgrounds. “It was years ago. I know I’m a different man than I was years ago."
Baker’s disinterest in the unfolding controversy, echoed by other voters interviewed here and in nearby towns, is reflected in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll that found Cain and Mitt Romney leading the Republican field. Seven out of 10 Republicans said allegations that Cain sexually harassed two employees when he headed the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s don’t matter.
But Baker’s indecision about the race – the only candidate he’s ruled out is Jon Huntsman -- also suggests that voters’ opinions of Cain could easily change. Just 27 percent of Cain’s supporters in the survey said they will definitely vote for him. As new details emerge and questions about his past conduct persist --and potentially sink in -- his popularity could erode in what remains a very volatile race.
The absence of Cain and Romney at the Iowa Republican Party’s Reagan dinner on Friday night, where as many as 1,000 diehard caucusgoers are expected, will give rivals an opening to make their pitch.
“If you’re not here, you’re not selling your message," said Perry’s Iowa campaign chairman, Republican consultant Bob Haus. “It’s getting to a pretty critical phase in the race not to be here."
Cain, who has stumped in Iowa only once since August, has overturned conventional wisdom about retail politics by surging to the top of the polls. It’s unclear how long the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO can sustain that popularity if he’s not here and focused on fending off the sexual harassment allegations. Politico and The New York Times have reported that two restaurant association employees each received five-figure financial settlements after complaining about Cain. A lawyer for one of the women is seeking a way around a confidentiality agreement so she can tell her story directly to the public.
For now, Cain’s past doesn’t appear to be giving voters pause.
“I guess that kind of political mudslinging is the norm,’’ said Cyrus Hill, a 67-year-old retired maintenance worker at the local party’s chili dinner. “I think the allegations might be unfounded.’’
Two of Cain’s competitors, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, walked around the room shaking hands and making small talk. Earlier on Thursday, Perry spoke to about 150 employees of the Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company in nearby Johnston.
One of the workers, Chad Arp, said he was interested in Perry’s flat tax plan – but hasn’t ruled out Cain, either.
“We don’t know how legitimate and serious these allegations are,’’ he said. “There’s going to be skeletons in everyone’s closet."
Arp added that he wished Cain would “come clean" with what happened. “He seems to be digging himself into a hole," he said.
Iowa pollster Ann Selzer, whose latest survey for the Des Moines Register was conducted before the allegations against Cain were reported, said she can’t predict how they will affect his campaign. The poll found Cain and Romney tied for first place, but Selzer said the goodwill engendered by Cain was particularly striking.
"We couldn't find any vulnerabilities for Herman Cain like we found with the other candidates,'' she said. "He just looked solid. Everybody likes him."
Still, Selzer cautioned that at this time four years ago Romney, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani were leading in Iowa. Mike Huckabee, then at 12 percent, went on to win the caucus.
"People think it's late,’’ she said. “But this is a protracted process and then it gets intense very quickly.''