Herman Cain has tried desperately to move past the allegations of sexual harassment ever since the story erupted onto the political scene last weekend. But almost every move he’s made since has prolonged his turn in the harsh spotlight.
On Wednesday, Cain’s decision to directly blame GOP presidential rival Texas Gov. Rick Perry gave the story renewed life. The finger-pointing at a fellow Republican landed the story above the fold of Thursday’s New York Times and has spurred another 24 hours of nonstop cable chatter.
It also has the potential to alienate Perry supporters, a crucial bloc of conservatives whose support Cain, or any of the right-leaning Republicans seeking the nomination, will need to unseat Mitt Romney as the front-runner.
Cain’s blame-game has steadily shifted depending on the day—or the hour—of the week. He began by attacking the credibility of the story itself, saying he recalled no financial settlements with women who accused him of misconduct while he ran the National Restaurant Association. Then he lashed out at the media for blowing the story out of proportion. Then he blamed Perry’s campaign for leaking the story in the first place.
“The cover-up is often worse than the crime,” said Republican political strategist Karen Hanretty, who is unaffiliated with any of the campaigns. “This is just starting to look like a cover-up, whether he’s guilty or not.”
Perhaps as bad, Cain’s campaign has been inconsistent since launching its broadside against Perry, who said on Thursday he’d fire any campaign staffer found to be involved in a leak against Cain.
On Wednesday, Cain fingered a former adviser to his 2004 Senate campaign, Curt Anderson, as the leaker. Anderson, who recently began working for the Perry campaign, has publicly denied any role as a source of the story.
By Thursday—less than 24 hours after he declared that “the actions of the Perry campaign are despicable”—Cain campaign manager Mark Block said he accepted Anderson’s assertion that he was not the source. Later in the day, Block appeared to be contradicted by his boss. In an interview on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s radio program, Cain continued to insist the allegations were a “planted story from” Perry’s campaign. But when asked if Mitt Romney’s campaign could have been involved: “Let's just say there aren't enough bread crumbs that we can lay down and connect that leads us anywhere else at this particular point in time and we are moving on.”
Hanretty said the contortions are taking a public toll. “Whether it’s an electrical fence on the border or a campaign accusation, he doesn’t think things through,” she said, and that “doesn’t translate well into presidential politics.”
John McLaughlin, a GOP political consultant unaffiliated with any of the campaigns, said Cain could weather the storm—so long as there are no further specific disclosures of sexual misconduct. But those could still be to come. The Associated Press has reported a third unnamed woman to accuse Cain of inappropriate behavior. The National Restaurant Association says it will decide Friday whether to lift the confidentiality agreement for one of Cain’s alleged accusers. And Politico reported late Thursday new details of what it described as an unwanted sexual advance made by Cain.
“The only thing that would really hurt him is if information, any specifics came out and people could judge on the facts,” McLaughlin said. “Without those facts, it’s not going to hurt him.”