“To my knowledge, this is not an accurate story.”
-- Herman Cain campaign spokesman J.D. Gordon on allegations of payments to two former female subordinates whom Politico reports made claims that Cain sexually harassed them.
Maybe if Herman Cain’s campaign manager had spent less of the past two weeks on self-promotional smoke breaks, the GOP’s putative presidential frontrunner would be having a better Monday.
Politico says that in the less than three years Cain led the National Restaurant Association, the trade group paid two female accusers more than $10,000 each to leave the organization and to be silent on the subject.
Despite having known that the story was in the pipeline for weeks, the Cain team and the candidate seemed utterly unprepared for the onslaught that has predictably followed. They have issued evasive denials and immediately gone to political DEFCON 1 by invoking the fricasseeing of Clarence Thomas, also a conservative black man from Georgia, in 1991 for allegations of bawdy talk at his office.
“Sadly, we’ve seen this movie played out before -- a prominent conservative targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics,” said spokesman J.D. Gordon (who is the campaign’s “vice president for communications” as well as a senior foreign-policy adviser).
While conservatives still bristle at having Thomas hectored by none other than Sen. Ted Kennedy for lasciviousness, jumping right to the infamous “high-tech lynching” doesn’t leave Cain a lot of running room. Remember that Justice Thomas’ ordeal was hardly a public relations success, even if he survived to go on and become a distinguished jurist.
Power Play will stipulate that these kinds of payouts are hardly rare in litigation-averse corporate America and that what Bill Clinton called “the politics of personal destruction” tends to keep competent and qualified people out of public life. Many Republicans still lament that two potential candidates this cycle, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, opted against runs because they did not want themselves and their families to have to endure the dumpster diving that is so much a part of American political life today.
So how could Cain and his team not have been prepared for this? If there was a payout to these women, which the campaign seems to allow is possible, then how was there no plan in place for this contingency? Surely they long knew that some rival campaign would unearth these allegations and that this would be tremendously dangerous for a candidate who is an ordained minister.
Allegations of physical sexual misconduct would be ruinous for Cain or any candidate on the Republican side, but even bawdy talk of the kind Thomas was accused of would badly undercut Baptist preacher Cain’s image. While some GOP primary voters may celebrate Cain’s lack of political correctness when talking about high-voltage border security or the funny names of America’s allies in Central Asia, they wouldn’t be so forgiving of raunchy language directed at women.
But as was the case with Cain’s bewildering responses on federal abortion policy and whether to negotiate with terrorists, neither Cain nor his nascent team seemed to be ready for a predictable challenge.
And so the question of the day: Where is Gloria Cain?
The candidate’s wife has stayed home in Georgia and is unknown to her husband’s fans. If she suddenly emerges now, it would have a Spitzerish, guilty-seeming quality. But if she doesn’t emerge soon, it will only deepen concerns about her husband’s conduct.
That’s why other campaigns are sure to introduce spouses to voters early and often. Not only can it be a big plus in humanizing candidates, as both Anita Perry and Ann Romney have done for their husbands, it also provides a person to vouch for the good character of the potential nominee. Hillary Clinton perfected the modern version of the political spouse as scandal-soaker-upper, but even those candidates who do not need the historic levels of help that her oft-erring husband did need a little assistance from time to time.
Which brings us back to Cain campaign manager Mark Block. Block has been busy calling attention to himself and his nicotine cravings, hardly wise if you have played the political game as close to the edge as Block did in his Wisconsin career.
Now, even as Team Cain tries to handle the sexier story of harassment hush money, the more boring claim bubbles up that Block violated federal campaign finance laws by having a company he established in Wisconsin improperly finance Cain’s campaign launch. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that the company seems to have existed almost solely for the provision of funds to the Cain campaign. What we don’t know is what matters most: Where did the money come from?
Block provoked this story with his smoke signals. By releasing the bizarre smoking video, Block begged the question “Who is this guy?” That prompted unhappy answers about questionable campaign practices and deepened reporters’ curiosity about this colorful character.
A laughing Block asked the Associated Press last week: "Can you imagine Karl Rove doing what I did with that cigarette?" No. And now you see why. Rather than talking about himself, Block should have been talking to his boss about getting ahead of the harassment story by introducing Mrs. Cain ahead of time.
When Mick Huckabee had his moment in 2008, he was ready for the spotlight after surviving and thriving in the ongoing knife fight that is Arkansas politics. He and his family-run campaign managed to hold their own against the well-funded, professional teams put in the field by John McCain and Romney. It was good enough to put Huckabee in contention for the nomination, but ultimately not enough.
The Romney organization this time around is even sharper and clearly a couple of steps ahead of McCain’s 2008 effort. It looks increasingly unlikely that Cain will be able to do even as well as his fellow Baptist preacher did four years ago. He may be as good as Huckabee on the stump, but he lacks Huckabee’s command of the issues and, more importantly, he lacks a strategist as able as Sarah Huckabee.
Chris Stirewalt is digital political editor for Fox News and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.