Cain On The Defensive Over Harassment Allegation

Deja Vu

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Deja Vu

Businessman Herman Cain's candidacy has been surging in the polls for the past several weeks. But the GOP presidential hopeful's campaign struggled Monday to address questions raised by an article in Politico. The article alleges that Cain harassed two female employees during his tenure at the National Restaurant Association. Cain responded to the charges in appearances on Fox News Channel and the National Press Club.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is in damage control mode.

HERMAN CAIN: In all of my over 40 years of business experience, running businesses and corporations, I have never sexually harassed anyone.

MONTAGNE: That was Cain, yesterday, at the National Press Club, attempting to put to rest reports that when he was the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, two female employees were paid to settle claims that he sexually harassed them. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At the end of his Press Club appearance, Herman Cain stood at the front of a packed room and sang.

CAIN: (Singing) He looked beyond...

KEITH: The song is called "He Looked Beyond My Faults." It's a gospel number Cain has sung on the campaign trail before - and it seemed especially fitting for a day Cain spent trying to deal with a very uncomfortable story. At the Press Club, Cain said he had been falsely accused of sexual harassment when he was at the National Restaurant Association and he was...

CAIN: Unaware of any sort of settlement.

KEITH: Though he did say he hoped it wasn't for much.

CAIN: As the leader of the organization, I recused myself and allowed my general council and my human resource officer to deal with the situation.

KEITH: But a few hours later, in an interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News, Cain said he remembered his general counsel updating him on a settlement.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

CAIN: He said the good news is because there was no basis for this we ended up settling for what would have been a termination settlement, quite frankly, in terms...

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: What would that be about?

CAIN: Maybe three months' salary or something like that.

KEITH: When Van Susteren asked if he had signed off on the settlement, his response was unsure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

CAIN: I don't recall signing it. Now, the fact that I say I don't recall signing it doesn't mean that I didn't sign it, but I simply don't recall if I signed it.

KEITH: This shifting story is a problem for the Cain campaign, says Jack Pitney.

JACK PITNEY: This is not good political damage control.

KEITH: Pitney is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He says inconsistency from a campaign can be much more damaging than the initial charge.

PITNEY: They should have been prepared with a response right from the get go. Get your facts straight. Get your side of the story out and stick to it. And an inconsistent response, or even worse an inaccurate response, just worsens the problem that you're facing.

KEITH: At this point, Pitney says it's not clear whether this is something Cain will recover from, or whether it's the beginning of the end for his presidential run. At the Press Club, Cain seemed to hope he had said enough to make it all go away.

CAIN: As far as we're concerned, you know, enough said, enough said about the issue. There's nothing else there to dig up.

KEITH: Republican political consultant Todd Harris says that's not going to be enough.

TODD HARRIS: If they are simply just hoping that it goes away, I'm afraid that they're going to be as ill-prepared tomorrow and the next day as they have been this past week.

KEITH: Harris knows a little something about crisis communications. He was working for the Arnold Schwarzenegger campaign for governor when the candidate was accused of sexual harassment. Harris says a crisis like this bumps a campaign off its message. The campaign loses control.

HARRIS: And that's why it's so important in a crisis situation to deal with it as quickly as you possibly can in order to pivot back onto your message, but that doesn't mean that you don't have to deal with it.

KEITH: Whether Cain can deal with it and get back on message may well determine whether he can stay near the front of the GOP pack. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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