WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s halting response to sex harassment allegations is causing a major distraction in the GOP race and drawing attention away from his rivals’ efforts to gain ground or announce initiatives.
It’s not clear how much the anonymous accusations will hurt Cain, a former pizza executive and past head of the National Restaurant Association. It’s possible the matter will be largely forgotten in a few weeks.
But for now, it has heightened intra-party tensions, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry briefly having to deny that his campaign leaked damaging information, before Cain dropped that charge. And the controversy continued to dominate headlines Friday, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney made a detailed speech on spending and Medicare in Washington.
The focus on Cain seemed to freeze the campaign into place for a full week, when Perry was hoping to make progress in positioning himself as the top alternative to Romney.
“Perry has got 60 days to make his case,” said Republican consultant Mike McKenna. Every day that Cain stays at the top of the polls or otherwise dominates the news, he said, “it’s a day that Perry loses.”
Many people in the Republican establishment always assumed Cain would fade, much as Rep. Michele Bachmann did when Perry entered the race in August.
Many still feel that way, and they assume the slow, messy unwinding of the charges and counter-charges won’t help him.
“Fair or unfair, is anybody more likely to vote for Herman Cain as a result of these allegations? The answer is no,” said Phil Musser, a GOP strategist unaffiliated with any campaign. “He was starting to build a bridge into establishment support,” Musser said. “That bridge has largely been demolished.”
But the harassment allegations, which Cain strongly denies, seem to have rallied some people to his side.
LaDonna Ryggs, Republican Party chairwoman in Spartanburg County, S.C., sees no reason to back away from Cain.
“You give me some substance to the questions and then we can talk,” Ryggs said early last week. On Friday, after the weeklong parade of news, Ryggs said nothing had changed.
Many Democrats, meanwhile, are delighted. They say the focus on Cain supports their contention that the GOP base is outside the mainstream and eager to back unprepared candidates with unworkable policies. These Democrats hope the controversy and Cain’s die-hard supporters will raise voters’ doubts about the entire Republican field, including Romney, the GOP establishment’s favorite.
“Herman Cain’s rise says a lot more about how slow the Republican Party has been to coalesce behind Mitt Romney than anything else,” said Bill Burton, a former spokesman for President Barack Obama.
New York-based Democratic consultant Rebecca Kirszner Katz said Cain’s support is the latest evidence of the Republican base’s conservative nature.
“Sarah Palin showed that large segments of the tea party Republican base will overlook anything as long as a candidate is ideologically pure,” Katz said in an email. “The good news for Democrats is that Republican candidates are going so far to the extreme on social issues” including abortion and family planning.
In next year’s showdown with Obama, Katz said, GOP candidates “are going to have a hard time winning back the national electorate.”
Cain has never held public office or been a military hero. Americans in modern times have never elected a president without one of those credentials. Should he win the nomination, let alone the presidency, it probably would rank as a bigger political upset than Obama winning the presidency only four years after leaving the Illinois legislature.
Both men are black. But Cain faces more barriers in the heavily white Republican Party.
The spotlight on Cain also serves as a reminder that Romney has been unable to pull away from a less-than-overwhelming field. He has been stuck at about 25 percent in the Republican polls, and now he’s running about even with a candidate with big problems.
But some Republican insiders see Cain’s travails as a two-edged sword for Romney. The longer Cain dominates political headlines, the harder it is for Perry — who many see as having the most resources and skills to challenge Romney — to get his campaign back on track.
Some prominent Republicans seem to be losing patience with the Cain distractions. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former party chairman, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “people need to know what the facts are.” He said Cain should “get those out as quickly as possible.”
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, another presidential contender, said on the same program: “it’s up to Herman Cain to get the information out, and get it out in total.”
Cain said on Saturday he would speak no more about the allegations.
Georgia Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Everhart said Cain probably needs to have his anonymous accusers released from their confidentiality agreements with the National Restaurant Association if he wants the matter to go away.
“I think he has to completely put it behind him or it will continue to be a problem,” Everhart said. “He’s got to do the housekeeping duties and clean this up.”
Everhart has often worked in politics with Cain, who lives in Atlanta.
“He always gives me a big hug,” she said. “Otherwise I’d think he was mad at me. He’s very outgoing, and sometimes people don’t like to be touched.”