Herman Cain’s bumbling response to accusations that he sexually harassed two former female employees prompted some GOP strategists on Tuesday to begin going public with concerns about a GOP rank-and-file favorite who touts his political inexperience but now appears to be falling victim to it.
At a 2012 election preview hosted by National Journal, Cain's chief of staff was peppered with questions about the charges and Cain's shifting story from journalists on the panel as well as members of the audience. Most striking was the attack launched by John Brabender, senior adviser to former Sen. Rick Santorum’s campaign. Brabender excoriated the Cain campaign's inconsistent response to the accusations, suggesting that the Georgia businessman's continually changing answers raise questions about whether he is ready to face down Obama next year.
“Everybody up here cares about one thing more than anything else, and that’s beating Barack Obama,” the longtime Santorum aide told Cain campaign manager Mark Block, seated just a few feet away as part of the same panel. “And whoever our nominee is has to be well vetted.”
Block did not directly respond to Brabender, but accused other campaigns of feeling threatened by Cain’s “unconventional” style.
For the most part, Cain's rivals have refrained from commenting on his travails. "Until things go past allegation to fact, I just try to leave them alone," Texas Gov. Rick Perry told reporters in Iowa who asked him about the Cain controversy on Tuesday. The politics of the allegations are particularly tricky for Republicans because many conservative pundits, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, have defended Cain against what they describe as a media witch hunt.
But several other veteran Republican strategists here seconded Brabender's critique, arguing that Cain's shifting responses to the crisis engulfing his campaign are making matters worse. "It's indicative of what we've seen across the trail," former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., regarded as one of his party's shrewdest strategists, said of Cain. "He's in the major leagues and he hasn't learned to hit the curve ball yet."
GOP strategist Ron Bonjean said that Cain, who scheduled three more national television interviews for Tuesday, should stop talking. “You have to duck and cover,” he said. “What he’s doing is trying to play through the crisis by talking through it, and by doing so he’s digging his own hole.”
After initially insisting he did not recall the allegations leveled against him or the settlement reached over them, Cain provided more details in a series of interviews. By Monday night, talking to Fox News's Greta Van Susteren, he recalled the job and duties of one of his accusers. Asked if he had a roving eye, Cain answered cryptically: "I enjoy flowers like anyone else."
On CNN on Tuesday morning, Cain blamed a faulty memory for the various accounts he has given about what he remembers of the women who filed the charges when they worked for him at the National Restaurant Association, as well as the settlement reached with them.
“I just started to remember more," he said. "In 12 years, a lot of stuff can go through your head. This is not something that was at the top of my mind.”
But Politico, which broke the story about the sexual harassment allegations, reported that it contacted the Cain campaign about the story 10 days before it broke. Even without that much advance notice, Cain's critics argued, a major presidential candidate should be more prepared to handle controversies about his past.
“What Republicans are seeing," said Bonjean, "is a guy who is thrust into spotlight as frontrunner who clearly has not prepared policy answers or vetted his background."
It's not surprising that the first shot at Cain came from the Santorum camp. The former senator has defined his candidacy by his willingness to get aggressive with rivals. Having framed his critique of Cain not on the alleged harassment itself but on the ineptitude of the Cain campaign's response, Brabender may have given an opening to other rivals. Because of the dynamics of the GOP field, there are plenty who might like to take advantage of the sudden opening to bring down the surging Cain.
Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich each are vying for the conservative, tea party voters who have propelled Cain’s candidacy, and raising questions about his viability is a good way to begin siphoning that support among Republicans, whose top priority is finding a candidate who can beat Obama.
“These guys are seeing Cain’s supporters as potentially their votes,” said Davis. “So they’re going to go after him.”
Even as Cain fends off his rivals, his campaign is still struggling to come up with a satisfying answer.
Block said the accusations against Cain are “ridiculous,” but bristled at the NJ panel when pressed by ABC News’s Amy Walter on whether he could guarantee that no other women will emerge to accuse Cain of misconduct.
“Amy, what didn’t you understand about what I just said?” he asked.
Naureen Khan contributed contributed to this article.