Sunday, November 6, 2011

Cain ‘Back on Message,’ if His Rivals Will Allow It

If Herman Cain has been less than clear about exactly what happened during his tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s, when he was accused of sexual harassment, he is being perfectly clear about how he intends to conduct himself now. “We’re getting back on message, end of story,” Mr. Cain said here on Saturday night after a debate with Newt Gingrich, which ended up being more of a Tea Party pep rally than a clash of ideas. At no point during the nearly three-hour event, a fund-raiser that began with cocktails, did Mr. Cain address what had consumed his campaign the previous week.“Don’t even go there,” Mr. Cain warned reporters who clamored to ask him at least one question after the event.

But Mr. Cain’s effort to move past the story were thwarted on Sunday by what may be a sign of things to come. One of his opponents for the Republican presidential nomination, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., and an influential Republican leader, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, used appearances on a Sunday morning talk show to urge Mr. Cain to be more forthcoming in responding to the accusations.

“Legitimate questions have been raised,” said Mr. Huntsman, a former governor of Utah. Mr. Cain has built his reputation on being a folksy and straight-talking former pizza executive, an alternative to his rivals with years of political experience. But his recent denials and evasions threaten to become a turning point, or at least a midcourse correction, on his unlikely but thriving campaign for the presidency.

The very qualities that endeared Mr. Cain to so many conservatives appear to be undercutting his chances, as new questions are raised about his management style.

Mr. Cain, inexperienced on the national political stage, has stumbled repeatedly since Politico broke the story of the harassment accusations a week ago. He has issued an avalanche of confusing and often contradictory statements, lashing out at his rivals, accusing Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign of leaking the information, and ultimately blaming the news media for covering the story. “His base is skeptical of the allegations,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist. “However, he will have to get it behind him sooner rather than later. I suspect this week will be the key week on the issue, and then it will die. Of course, that depends on what the accusers are allowed to say.”

Mr. Cain told reporters after the debate on Saturday that instead of asking him questions, they should read a copy of “the journalistic code of ethics.” And he has not budged on his insistence that he will not address the specifics of the accusations.

Until Sunday, his Republican opponents had for the most part refrained from bringing up the accusations. But Mr. Huntsman, appearing on the NBC News program “Meet the Press,” signaled that was no longer the case. “It’s up to Herman Cain to get the information out and get it out in total,” Mr. Huntsman said.

And Mr. Barbour, also on “Meet the Press,” said, “People need to know what the facts are.”

Such comments could undercut Mr. Cain’s case that the accusations were stirred up by a left-wing news media intent on destroying his candidacy.

Still, polls released late last week suggested that the crisis was not eroding Mr. Cain’s standing as a top-tier candidate; he was running neck and neck with Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts. J. D. Gordon, a spokesman for Mr. Cain, said the campaign had raised $6.7 million since Oct. 1, effectively tripling what it had collected during the entire summer. He said the campaign staff had grown to 65, up from 30 paid workers at the end of the summer.

The Cain campaign did not respond on Sunday to a request for comment about its strategy. But judging from the lack of any public campaign events over the next several days, Mr. Cain is likely to be spending time behind closed doors preparing for the next debate with the large field of Republican candidates, which will be held Wednesday.

The debates have been an opportunity for Mr. Cain to shine, highlighting his capacity for making quick and catchy remarks while promoting his simple policy prescriptions, like the “9-9-9” flat tax plan. But it is unlikely that he will be able to evade questions about the harassment accusations or make light of them should they arise in the debate. Simply allowing time to pass might not be the best strategy. “Bad news is not like fine wine,” Mr. Barbour said, paraphrasing a quote from Henry A. Kissinger. “It doesn’t improve with age.”


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