Allegations that Herman Cain sexually harassed two former employees landed like a grenade on the eve of what was supposed to be a weeklong charm offensive in Washington.
But what appeared to be a bombshell in the Republican presidential race may only expose the existing chasm between the political establishment, ever skeptical of Cain's chances of becoming the nominee, and the tea party movement, which has turned the compelling former pizza-chain executive into one of the party’s most unlikely front-runners.
“The people have propelled my candidacy,’’ said a defiant Cain, explaining his success in the first of two public appearances in Washington on Monday. “I’m not the party favorite, but the momentum is coming from the grassroots and the people. That’s why this flavor of the week is the flavor of the month, and it still tastes good.’’
The accusations against Cain will test the strength of the conservative grassroots at a time when political insiders are anxious to anoint Mitt Romney, or at least, to declare the primary a two-man race between him and Rick Perry. For now, it remains unclear whether Cain’s enormous populist appeal can overwhelm the institutional obstacles in his path to the nomination. He has few major donors, fewer endorsements, and only a bare-bones political organization in the states hosting the earliest nominating contests.
That he was in Washington in the first place--instead of on the campaign trail in Iowa or New Hampshire just two months before the first votes are cast--reflects his unorthodox strategy that seeks to maximize his national media exposure.
“I don’t think Cain is going to be the nominee, but that’s not because of these allegations,’’ said Republican strategist Jim Dyke, who is neutral in the race. “They may not even affect the race at all…. He’s different, and people are desperate for something different.’’
Politico reported on Sunday night that two former employees who complained about Cain when he headed the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s left the trade group after receiving financial settlements. NBC News confirmed one of the payouts on Monday.
The potentially damaging stories were met with a shrug by some GOP operatives who have been sitting back, waiting for Cain to self-destruct. None of his campaign rivals--eager to scoop up his supporters should his campaign collapse--issued a public comment.
Cain’s denials are unlikely to satisfy political insiders in Washington, but he is just as unlikely to win their support. His schedule this week includes meetings on Capitol Hill with the congressional health care caucus and other lawmakers.
“I’ve consistently felt this was a race between [Mitt] Romney and [Rick] Perry, but this latest news certainly will prove detrimental to any hopes Cain had,’’ said Fred Malek, a top fundraiser for the Republican Party who has not endorsed a presidential candidate.
In public appearances at the American Enterprise Institute and the National Press Club on Monday, Cain insisted he was falsely accused and called the accusations a “witch hunt.’’ But even more striking than his denials was his good cheer amid the glare of dozens of television cameras (“I would be delighted to clear the air’’); his still-folksy explanation of his “9-9-9’’ economic plan (“We wanted it to be transparent. There are no hidden 9s’’ ); and his disarming observations on race and politics (“This many white people can’t pretend that they like me,’’ he quipped).
Upon request for a song, he closed his speech at the Press Club with a dulcet spiritual hymn that brought the crowd to its feet.
Missing was the press conference we’ve seen before, featuring a stoic candidate and a supportive spouse standing by. It was just Cain slinging quips in his trademark dark suit and gold tie. As he put it at the end of his earlier speech at the American Enterprise Institute, “Herman is going to stay Herman. Thank-you very much. ‘’
To some tea party activists, fed up with what they see as a corrupt and conspiratorial federal government, the accusations against Cain only reinforce his cherished status as a political outsider. Charlie Gruschow, the Iowa-based president of the Tea Party of America, compared the accusations against Cain to the sexual harassment allegations leveled by Anita Hill at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings.
“People know Herman Cain and his character,’’ Gruschow said. “This is a man of incredible integrity, and it infuriates me that they’re trying to do to Herman Cain what they did to Clarence Thomas. The same people are at it, the extreme progressive Left, who doesn’t want a black conservative to succeed, but they’re not going to bring Herman Cain down.’’
Another tea party leader in Iowa, Gregg Cummings of the Tea Party Patriots, said that Cain “gave a good enough answer’’ and predicted the allegations would not damage his campaign.
“It’s very clear that whoever gets on top is going to get these kinds of false accusations,’’ Cummings said. “He’s an outsider, and we need people who are not part of the status quo.’’
What's unclear is how long Cain can sustain the wave. Cain maintains that critics of his 9-9-9 plan simply haven’t read it. Enough said. Now facing the most intense scrutiny of his campaign, whether he can continue to get away with those kind of detail-free dismissals looms as the latest big question mark over one of the most unpredictable Republican primaries in decades.