WASHINGTON -- Herman Cain's rise as a presidential contender was supposed to prove that race didn't matter in the Republican Party. Cain is fast making it the only thing that does.
The black conservative is trying to navigate around allegations that he sexually harassed at least three women, implying that the accusations surfaced because he is black.
Hours after the claims were reported, Cain's supporters branded his trouble a "high-tech lynching." That's the term coined 20 years ago by another black conservative, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, after his confirmation hearings for the court were rocked by allegations of sexual harassment.
Cain's supporters have pinned blame on a white GOP presidential rival, on liberals afraid of a "strong black conservative" and on mainstream media interested in "guilty until proven innocent." But by playing the race card with the Thomas precedent, his backers belied the "post-racial" America that President Barack Obama was said to have brought about in the United States -- and that they, too, promote.
Cain's success in Republican straw polls was considered by many, especially black conservatives, proof that America was finally ready to consider candidates according to ideas, not race.
The GOP is eyeing blacks with new appeal, as evidenced by the rise of conservatives such as Cain; two former secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice; former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma; and current Reps. Allen West of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina.
"It's a new world," said Republican political operative Warren Tompkins of South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired and where Republicans voted against a son of legendary Sen. Strom Thurmond in a GOP primary and sent Scott to Congress. "It's not about the package, it's about the message."
But that doesn't mean that talking about race for political advantage is passé. Conservatives immediately turned the narrative that way once the Cain allegations became public.