On Monday night, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” exclaimed putative Republican front-runner Mitt Romney as the likest man alive. All his potential rivals have fallen by the way side and now the last man standing between Romney and the nomination – Herman Cain – may be about to as well. On Sunday night, Politico reported that while Cain was CEO of the National Restaurant Association two employees filed harassment claims against Cain and then left the firm after a cash settlement was paid in a nondisclosure agreement.
On Monday morning, Cain emphatically denied the story as “totally baseless and totally false.” He added, “And yes, I was falsely accused while I was at the National Restaurant Association. And I say falsely, because it turned out after the investigation to be baseless.”
“I have never sexually harassed anyone,” Cain stressed.
He added that he had no knowledge of a settlement: “If the Restaurant Association did a settlement, I wasn’t aware of it and I hope it wasn’t for much.” As for any future possible allegations: “The only other allegations will be trumped-up allegations. There’s nothing else.”
“I believe I have a good sense for where you cross the line relative to sexual harassment, but you have to know the lady, the individual. And if you look at my entire 40-year career…I get to the National Restaurant Association—up to that point, not one accusation of sexual harassment, which meant that I did a pretty good job of knowing where to draw the line,” Cain told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.
The story, however, has not died down and does not appear likely to. One of the accused may now publicly speak to the press. The Walll Street Journal reports that the lawyer for the (as yet) unidentified woman is seeking a release from her 1999 nondisclosure agreement to discusse the matter. “My client disputes Mr. Cain’s claims that he never sexually harassed anyone, and that the claims had no merit,” Washington attorney Joel P. Bennett, who represented the woman in the previous harassment case, told the Journal.
The National Restaurant Association has said through a spokesperson that it will “respond as appropriate” to a request.
Recently the Cain campaign has sought a new approach: to avoid the matter. Campaign spokesperson J.D. Gordon has dodged press inquiries with the refrain that the campaign has addressed the question and “we have nothing to add.”
In contrast, on Tuesday night, Cain described the charges as a “smear” designed to wreck his presidential ambitions. And on Wednesday morning, speaking to an IT business association in northern Virginia, Cain obliquely referenced the ongoing controversy as part of the arc of American campaign. “The first phase is they ignore you. The second phase is they ridicule you… the third phase is they try to destroy you. We got a little of that this week.”
And then “They accept you. We’re right in the middle of the third phase,” he added.
It is still to early to predict whether Cain can survive the media storm. The possibility of one (if not both) of the women going forward to the press would create a field day.
To complicate matter further, a second person familiar with the case has said that the harassment complaint included more than one incident “and continued over some period of time.” Even if “baseless” the mere reports are likely to hurt Cain’s image, which has thus far been highly favorable among Republicans.
It remains to be seen if this is the beginning of the end for Cain. Many Republican backers are undeterred.
Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson told the Journal: “They [Republicans] seem to have drawn the wagons around Herman right now.” He added, “At the grass-roots level, I don’t think this has changed the chemistry.”
But not all agree. “I think [it] is actually hurting him right now. The reason is not necessarily the allegation, but the way he’s handling it. It kind of shows a lack of professionalism,” said Everett Wilkinson, a Tea Party activist in Florida.
All the while Romney can continue to do what he has done all along: stand above the fray and what his opponents crumble.