As Herman Cain's presidential campaign spent Monday dealing with the fallout from sexual harassment allegations, it became increasingly clear that his handling of the controversy could put him in greater jeopardy than the actual decade-old charges.
"How a candidate handles a crisis is as important as the specifics of the crisis itself. You have two separate issues here. First are the actual allegations and whether they can be substantiated. So far at least, he seems to be OK here because no one has come forward and there's no proof other than one article," said one Republican strategist who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns.
The strategist added: "So far, he hasn't handled it well. If it's categorically untrue, then why did it take him almost two weeks to say that? If he knew nothing about it, then why didn't he push back harder when confronted about it?"
A Politico story broke online Sunday evening, detailing sexual harassment allegations brought against Cain in the late 1990s by two employees of the National Restaurant Association during the Georgia Republican's tenure as president and CEO. The association compensated the unnamed women financially, and no criminal charges were ever brought against Cain, who left the industry lobbying organization in 1999.
The Cain campaign's initial reaction appeared inconsistent and less than transparent, both in the Politico story and during several media appearances Monday. While Cain forcefully and categorically denied the allegations, by the end of the day it became clear he knew more than what he first said about the allegations.
He told a luncheon audience at the National Press Club that he has never sexually harassed anyone during his 40 years in the business world, describing the accusations from NRA employees as "false."
"I have never sexually harassed anyone, and those allegations are totally false," a typically relaxed and good-natured Cain said during a question-and-answer session. "We have no idea the source of this witch hunt, which is exactly what it is."
The charges come as Cain finds himself riding high in the polls, nationally and in some of the key early primary states. The Georgian was No. 1 in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, with 25 percent — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was second at 24.3 percent. Cain also led in the average of Iowa polls, garnering 27 percent to Romney's 22.4 percent, and in South Carolina, receiving 28.7 percent to Romney's 23 percent.
Cain, a former corporate executive, president and CEO of the Godfather's Pizza chain and chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, most recently worked as a talk-radio host. He has risen from relative obscurity to frontrunner status in the polls on the strength of support from grass-roots conservatives and tea party activists, whom he has courted heavily. Thus far, critical analysis of Cain's strategy and electoral prospects appear only to have boosted his appeal.
"I keep thinking that Cain's inability to give substantive answers to real issues about foreign policy or the economy will diminish him in the eyes of voters. Yet, he keeps on going," said one Republican operative with past experience on a presidential campaign. "I'm starting to think Herman Cain is the tea party's new Sarah Palin. His ignorance is translated to mean 'outsider' to many voters."
Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential nominee, saw a similar rise in popularity among conservative and tea party activists in the midst of criticism from the national press corps and many in the professional Republican political class. Palin's popularity among rank-and-file voters has waned since the 2008 campaign, but she remains a folk hero in conservative circles.
Experienced Republican political consultants are generally doubtful about Cain's viability, either questioning a campaign strategy that relies less than usual on the support from early primary and caucus states or expecting that GOP primary voters will ultimately conclude that he is not presidential material. But the sexual harassment charges are not among the reasons they expect Cain to ultimately fade. In fact, many candidates have overcome similar allegations.
Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 after dealing with sexual misconduct charges in his campaign, while actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected California governor in a 2003 recall contest just days after the Los Angeles Times reported that he had been accused numerous times of groping and otherwise sexually harassing women.
Although new details were still coming to light Monday night, GOP strategists said the allegations against Cain thus far are simply too thin to inflict lasting damage.
"If his denials today are accurate and effectively put the story to bed, then he'll be fine. Heck, the whole episode might even benefit him as conservatives rally around him," said a Republican media strategist with presidential campaign experience. "So far, he's proven to be Teflon. His fav-unfav numbers are so much better than any of his opponents' — he's in a great position to rise above any attacks as politics as usual."
The key to Cain surviving this storm is crisis management and whether a campaign populated by political operatives thin on presidential experience can effectively protect him. On that score, Cain's campaign failed miserably.
One Republican strategist who worked on a 2008 presidential campaign said the Cain team's early missteps in handling the sexual harassment allegations point to larger problems in handling the increased scrutiny that is likely to continue as long as the Georgian remains atop the polls. Another Republican operative said the Cain campaign's reaction to the charges "expose the amateurish nature of his candidacy." The candidate's veracity also matters and could influence the effect of this story.
"Cain can't hold up under the scrutiny for long. These allegations are the first of the [opposition] research the other candidates will leak out on Cain," said a Republican operative based in Washington. "I think this is the tip of the iceberg."