Nothing about the Herman Cain campaign has unfolded as expected, so it’s anybody’s guess what will happen next.
(RELATED: Fourth Woman Accuses Cain of Misconduct)
But by presenting a name, a face, and details — unlike the three other women who have accused him of sexual harassment — Sharon Bialek will make it a lot harder for voters to ignore the allegations. Her nationally televised press conference on Monday ensures that this is not, as Cain declared recently, “end of story.’’ Not even close.
Cain himself tacitly acknowledged this late Monday, announcing that he would hold a news conference in Phoenix on Tuesday to discuss the allegations against him made by Bialek.
His campaign offered a preview of his likely defense centering on his latest accuser's hiring of celebrity attorney Gloria Allred. "Ms. Allred is a high-profile Democrat Party donor and activist who has given over ten thousand dollars to liberal Democrats like Barack Obama, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer," his campaign e-mail said.
"The questions the media should be asking are who's paying for Gloria Allred's fee, how did Ms. Bialek get introduced to Ms. Allred, and was she paid to come forward with these false accusations or was she promised employment?"
For more than a week, allegations that Cain came on to female employees when he headed the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s were unspecific and anonymous. First there were two women, and then there were three. Cain said that all he could recall was a conversation with one of them in which he noted her height was the same as his wife’s. It was all very vague.
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Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, may have summed up voters’ attitudes best when she said on Sunday, “I just don't see anonymous sources as fair against a candidate. I think if someone has a real concern, they should come out and say it.… Until something comes out that’s concrete, I think it is politics as usual.’’
(PICTURES: Political Sex Scandals)
Not anymore. Bialek is, as her credibility-hungry attorney proclaimed right away, a registered Republican who graduated from college, has held down a number of jobs, and once dated a doctor. She could have sold her story for money, attorney Allred added, but she didn’t.
Bialek gave a detailed account of meeting Cain at an association convention years ago and then reaching out to him for advice one month later after losing her job. She said he upgraded her hotel room in Washington, took her out to dinner, and offered to show her his offices. Then it got ugly. She said he reached for her crotch and pushed her head toward his own. Bialek noted they went to an Italian restaurant and that she was wearing a black plaid skirt. She knows details matter to those sitting in judgment.
Bialek also presented herself as someone people can relate to. The single mother of a 13-year-old son needed a job. Sounds like more than a few voters out there. She was careful not to sound spiteful, praising Cain’s “infectious presence’’ and maintaining that she had hoped she was the only woman he had harassed.
When that appeared not to be the case, Bialek said, she decided to tell her story to the public.
“I’m coming forward to give a face and a voice to those women who cannot or for whatever reason do not wish to come forward,’’ she said.
And that she did. While the first polls conducted since the allegations broke suggest Cain remains well liked and at the front of the Republican pack, there were seeds of trouble ahead. More than half of the GOP voters dismissed Cain’s alleged behavior in a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, but negative feelings toward him did grow from 18 percent to 35 percent. Cain is tied with Mitt Romney in the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, but the survey found very few people were convinced one way or the other about the allegations, and more than half said sexual harassment should disqualify a candidate. The latest Des Moines Register poll showed Cain already trailing Romney among women in Iowa, a crucial stepping stone in his uphill path to the nomination.
Bialek has changed the calculus. Before it was “’he said’’ versus "who knows who said what." Now, it’s Herman Cain versus Sharon Bialek.
What’s more, the behavior she described goes further than the conventional definition of sexual harassment. This was not just an “off-color remark’’ as Hutchinson suggested. It was aggressive. It was physical. If you believe her story, it’s hard to argue that Cain didn’t cross the line.
Many of the conservative, tea party activists who have propelled Cain’s campaign are quick to deride the mainstream media. Some completely wall themselves off from it, selectively tuning in to the blogs and broadcasts that fit their preconceived notions about the world. That Bialek spoke unfiltered and directly to the television cameras could make a difference in how voters perceive the allegations.
Will Cain be the Republican nominee? Who knows? What’s certain is that Bialek has raised the stakes.