Rising Cain Reveals Depth of Anti-Romney Vote: Margaret Carlson

Nov. 2 (Bloomberg) -- There was a time when sexual harassment allegations resulting in multiple financial settlements would have killed or at least impeded a presidential campaign. These days? Who knows.

In the nontraditional-campaign-cum-performance-art that is Herman Cain’s quest for the presidency, what doesn’t kill him may make him stronger. Cain’s campaign -- to the extent such a thing actually exists -- is in crisis mode after reported that two women had accused Cain of inappropriate behavior in the 1990s when he led the National Restaurant Association.

Yet at a previously scheduled event on tax policy at the American Enterprise Institute this week, the candidate showed up with his sunny salesmanship intact. While ducking questions about the allegations, Cain blithely welcomed “all your arrows” from the assembled reporters before leaving the stage in a cloud of self-confidence. “By the way folks, I am an unconventional candidate,” he reminded the audience. “Herman is going to stay Herman.” If whatever Cain’s parents -- a chauffeur and a housekeeper -- fed little Herman could be packaged, Gerber would have some real competition.

Maybe there are other shoes to drop -- Cain’s story keeps shifting -- and the Republican base’s curious infatuation with Cain, as with earlier infatuations this election cycle, will end. And maybe not. The Republican base appears no closer to ending its holdout against the Obama-lite candidacy of Mitt Romney. One popular conservative website, Free Republic, actually bans pro-Romney commenters, and even George Will is taking potshots at the candidate whose nomination many political pros believe is inevitable.

Gaffes Are Validation

Cain has succeeded Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry as the anti-Romney. So far, Cain’s gaffes -- being for and against an electrified border fence, for and against a woman’s right to choose, in favor of a hypothetical exchange of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner for a U.S. hostage -- are validation, much like his weird Web ad featuring his campaign manager smoking a cigarette, that Cain isn’t a member of the detested political elite.

According to the Des Moines Register, he’s also a front-runner. In a Register poll published last weekend, 23 percent of likely caucusgoers said Cain was their first choice, putting him in a statistical tie with Romney, who garnered 22 percent. (Significantly, only 10 percent of Romney supporters said they would definitely attend the caucuses.) More surprising, Cain is tied with Perry among Republican voters in Texas, according to a new University of Texas-Texas Tribune poll.

In this upside-down atmosphere, sexual harassment charges might just give Cain supporters -- and would-be supporters -- something tasty to feast on, with fresh evidence that the world is conspiring against them. (And if Cain were not a formidable candidate, why would the evil liberals and news media try to destroy him?)

Cain foretold this moment back in May. In an interview with the Washington Examiner’s Byron York, Cain compared himself to Justice Clarence Thomas, saying “I’m ready for the same high-tech lynching” that Thomas received at liberals’ hands. The “high-tech lynching” theme has been advanced by Ann Coulter and other conservative pundits. Rush Limbaugh tore into Politico for what he called a “racially stereotypical attack” on a black man who is getting “too uppity.”

The Republican establishment can practically taste its victory over President Barack Obama -- provided the party nominates a viable candidate. From his perch at Fox News, Karl Rove scolded Cain for his shaky responses to the harassment allegations. In private, other Republicans express similar dismay, suggesting, for example, that Cain should have been vetted in a run for governor before trying his hand at presidential politics. Yet with the likes of Limbaugh and Coulter rallying around him, the scent of scandal may be strengthening Cain.

Maple Syrup

Perry has the money to get another twirl around the dance floor, although it’s going to take a fortune in 30-second TV ads to make Republicans forget that he can’t form simple declarative sentences in debates and is insufficiently hostile to immigrants. In a speech last weekend in New Hampshire, Perry rambled on, gesticulated like a crazy person, giggled at his own jokes and topped off the performance by tilting a gift bottle of maple syrup in order to marvel at the way the liquid ran down the sides. “Awesome,” he said. More than a few bloggers wondered if Perry might have been intoxicated. It could hardly have been a reassuring sight to donors wondering if Perry can make his way back.

So Cain’s moment may persist -- if for no other reason than that the base is plum out of alternatives. (Newt Gingrich has recently ticked up in the polls, but three wives and a $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany’s are probably not what Republicans are craving.) Of course, an alternative to Romney has existed all along, and in plain sight. If former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman weren’t already bringing up the rear in this race, Republicans might be begging him to get in.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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