Power Play

The Curious Case of the Cain Conspiracy

The Curious Case of the Cain Conspiracy

Washington Worries Over Who Zapped the GOP Frontrunner, But They’re Looking in the Wrong Places

“We’ve been able to trace it back to the Perry campaign that stirred this up in order to discredit me. The fingerprints of the Rick Perry campaign are all over this, based on our sources.”

-- Herman Cain speaking at a TheTeaParty.net event on Wednesday.

The big question among Washington hacks and flacks today is this: Who’s the tattletale?

Herman Cain blames Rick Perry’s campaign for planting the story about sexual harassment complaints against Cain when he ran the restaurant industry’s trade association.

Rick Perry’s campaign team says they didn’t do it and points a sidelong finger at Mitt Romney’s organization.

Where the blame falls could matter a great deal if Cain is badly damaged by the still-emerging allegations. If Cain’s star falls, Republicans would have no love for a candidate who’s staff would plant stories filled with anonymous allegations with a publication widely distrusted on the right.

As details drip, drip, drip out on the cases, Cain has had to retreat from his original posture of describing the matters as so minimal that he didn’t even recall the specifics of the charges or if a settlement had been paid. He backed off that within the first day of the scandal circus and has since then illuminated, in a series of interviews, new details on what happened.

This strategy has allowed Cain to avoid telling the whole tale in an embarrassing, Weineresque press conference in which he would be badgered for an hour or more and look like a defendant on the witness stand. But the approach has also reinforced the sense that during Cain’s unfortunately timed weeklong return to D.C. that there is a salacious new detail hiding under every rock. Neither has it reinforced Cain’s principle appeal to anti-establishment conservatives as a straight shooter.

Cain’s presidential hopes will rise or fall on the credibility of his accusers and the charges against him. Those details will continue to come out today and in the days to come – more slowly because of Cain’s decision to deflect.

But Cain & Co. need to get off defense and are now making accusations of their own. Their targets are Perry and the press, and it stands to reason. Cain has had little love for Perry, saying in September that he would not endorse the Texas governor if he were the nominee but would back Romney, as Cain did in 2008. Cain has also criticized Perry for the presence of a racial slur on a rock at a hunting camp leased by the Perry family, though he later backtracked.

If Cain makes the leaker charge against Perry stick, it could be the end of Perry’s viability. His only path to the nomination is if he can consolidate the support of conservatives who switched to Cain after Perry turned out to be a palooka when it came to debates. Even if Cain is found to have Clinton-sized problems, conservatives would still punish Perry for fighting dirty.

The Case Against Perry

Mark Block, Cain’s chief of staff, appeared on “Special Report with Bret Baier” to level the accusation that Perry adviser Curt Anderson was behind the leak to Politico’s Jonathan Martin. Block said Anderson had known about the allegations for seven years since he had worked for Cain’s unsuccessful 2004 bid for the Republican nomination for a Georgia Senate seat. Block said Cain had disclosed the existence of the charges so his campaign could be prepared to rebut them.

That can’t really be it, though, because the story is the result of Martin and his Politico colleagues getting some substantial dirt – somebody gave them the files, not just a recollection of a brief 2004 meeting. Anderson says Cain never told him about it, but Block said that was a lie. But even if it were, Anderson wouldn’t have had the dirt to dish. If Cain’s current recollections on the cases are any reflection on what he could recall in 2004, there wouldn’t have been a lot to work with.

Cain told former Washington Times Editorial Page Editor Richard Miniter, who now writes for Forbes, that he had filled Anderson in but that the two had been alone when Cain briefed him about his old troubles. Anderson, a Beltway survivalist, seems an unlikely suspect for burning one client for another one and then baldly lying about it, but that’s Cain’s accusation.

This is where Chris Wilson comes in. He’s a Washington pollster who worked for the restaurant association when Cain led the lobbying group. Wilson now works for a super PAC created by Perry boosters. The PAC can’t coordinate with Perry’s campaign, but this at least shows some mutual interests.

Wilson was a guest on an Oklahoma talk radio show on Wednesday and said that he recalled being at the restaurant when the second of what are now three accusers was subject to some bawdy talk from Cain in front of a group. Wilson said the behavior was brazen and that if the woman, then just out of college, ever told her tale that it would be the end of Cain.

This is not the first woman, whom Cain described as a more senior staff member who worked on the same floor as he at the association’s headquarters. She was the one Cain said was offended by a hand gesture he made indicating that her height was similar to that of his wife, Gloria. A lawyer for the first accuser plans to release a statement today detailing his client’s side of the story.

Wilson was talking about a second woman of whom Cain told ABC News that, "she was in some of those group activities where we went out together, but it was never, she and I alone or anything like that.”

A third woman has come forward (anonymously) to the Associated Press to say that she too had been harassed by Cain – she alleges Cain invited her to the apartment the association kept in Washington and talked about her good looks with other employees -- but did not complain at the time she said because her duties brought her into Cain’s presence less often.

Wilson could have been the source for some of Politico’s details about woman number two, but it seems unlikely that an outside pollster would have had access to the kinds of information that Politico has. Wilson flatly denies that he was a source for the original Martin piece.

The third piece of Perry connectivity that Cain’s team point to is Tony Fabrizio, the pollster just hired by the Perry campaign who also did polling for Cain’s 2004 primary bid and was Wilson’s boss at the time at the association.

The Cain team has made a strong case for motive, because Perry would surely love for Cain to not be dominating the primary within a primary on the Republican right. He’s also made an argument that three Perry associates or backers could have had knowledge of the existence of the claims, or, in Wilson’s case, firsthand knowledge of one of the incidents.

Under this scenario, Perry people could have whispered to Martin about the presence of some problems and offered an obliging push in the right direction and then the Politico team would have had to pry out additional details from sources inside the association.

The Case Against Romney

One of a very few of the anonymous sources cited with much specificity in the original Martin story is a former board member of the restaurant association.

While there have been dozens, there is one that caught the Perry campaign’s eye: Richard Marriott, the head of one of America’s largest food and hospitality corporations and the son of Mitt Romney’s namesake, J. Willard Marriott.

The Marriotts and the Romneys share a Mormon faith and long family ties, and as the former president of the restaurant association and as a member of the board, Marriott would have not only known about the charges against Cain but would have had to have signed off on the settlements.

Perry people also point to the fact that the man who replaced Cain at the restaurant group in 1999 is a Romney supporter who recently cut a $1,000 check to the campaign. But that’s hardly a smoking gun. Power Play would suspect that if you took a survey of the heads of the lobbying groups in Washington, Romney would win in a landslide.

Like the Cain case against Perry, the Perry case against Romney is circumstantial, but has the advantage of including a player who had the means, motive and opportunity to do the deed.

Romney’s campaign had a two-word answer: “Not true.”

But, if we follow the same rules of conspiracy that Cain applied to Perry’s team, and disregard public denials, and Romney’s campaign or his supporters were the ones who launched the story, this would go down as one of the cagiest political moves ever in primary politics.

Not only would Romney have begun the end of Cain, but would have managed to pin some or all of the blame on Perry. Reporters love the conflict between Cain and Perry and will keep stoking the feud, allowing Romney to stay out of the fray while the ugliness consumes both of his competitors.

That’s killing two quail with the same shot.

Occam’s Razor Says…

With as many people in Washington who knew about these cases, the story was going to come out sooner or later.

Had Cain won the GOP nomination in Georgia in 2004, it may have come out in a general election once operatives started asking around. Had Cain been a more serious threat to Johnny Isakson in the primary, it might have even come out then.

Cain’s theory holds that Perry summoned the story into being and that it wouldn’t have ever come out otherwise. That’s just not how it goes. When dozens of people know about something inside the incestuous world of Washington consulting and lobbying, it’s going to come out eventually.

The Cain campaign cites overlapping circles of influence and activity in their attack on Perry and Perry’s campaign makes a similar argument in deflecting blame to Romney. But all that forgets how small the universe of high-level GOP operatives and pollsters really is. Power Play estimates that there aren’t but a few dozen heavy hitters in Republican Washington who do the kind of work that Anderson and Fabrizio do.

There had been murmurs about problems like this for weeks, and Martin is deeply sourced in the world of Republican operatives and lobbyists. He would have been ideally situated to gather string from multiple sources and then find motivated corroborators. Who planted the seed is less important than the fact that he found fertile ground in which to plant it.

The best way to think about it may be “A Shot in the Dark,” the second of the Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther movies. In the end, Inspector Clouseau discovers who the killer is: everyone. They all did it.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“Look, we had Pawlenty and Bachmann. She knocked him out, he knocked her down. Gingrich stepped on his own landmines when he started his campaign. Perry has been on the attack and his numbers sank.

I think one of the rules in these kinds of campaigns is the candidates that attack each other generally hurt each or and bring each other down and don't succeed. And the one guy who escapes, here Romney with a suit of armor somehow almost invisible, he somehow walks through a World War I minefield, and thus far, he has been unhurt.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.