Harassment Allegations Crippling Cain Campaign?

GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain is defending himself against reports that he allegedly sexually harassed two women in the 1990s. Also, Rick Perry's staff is trying to reboot his White House bid. And are President Obama's executive orders a way for him to bypass Congress? Guest host Allison Keyes talks politics with journalists Cynthia Tucker and Mary Kate Cary.

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ALLISON KEYES, host: I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we talk to the publisher of the online scholarship finding service fastweb.com. He says the total U.S. student loan debt is nearly a trillion dollars. More on that in just a few minutes. But first, a political update.

Herman Cain is facing possibly the most significant challenge yet to his presidential campaign. Cain and his campaign have had to answer questions over the last day or so about allegations that he sexually harassed two women in the late 1990's.

The women were employees at the National Restaurant Association, which Cain headed at the time. The news was first reported by Politico over the weekend, which said, quote, "Both women received separation packages that were in the five-figure range." Cain said yesterday that he was falsely accused of sexual harassment and maintains he did nothing wrong. Here to talk about how this and other items on the political agenda are affecting the landscape this week are Cynthia Tucker.

She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. Also in studio with us is Mary Kate Cary. She's a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report and a former speech writer for President George H.W. Bush. Thank you ladies and welcome back.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Thanks Allison, good to be here.

MARY KATE CARY: Good to be here.

KEYES: Before we start I wanted to play a clip from Herman Cain at the Press Club yesterday about the allegations.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HERMAN CAIN: I was falsely accused of sexual harassment and when the charges were brought as the leader of the organization I recused myself and allowed my general counsel and my human resource officer to deal with the situation. And it was concluded after a thorough investigation that it had no basis. As far as a settlement, I am unaware of any sort of settlement. I hope it wasn't for much because I didn't do anything.

KEYES: Of course, later he did admit that he knew there was some sort of settlement but said he didn't know how much it was for. Mary Kate let me start with you. He's compared these allegations to, quote, "a witch hunt." How do you think he's handling this so far?

CARY: Well, it's the day after Halloween.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: But oh, well. But I'm from the old school of innocent until proven guilty and because there was settlements does not mean necessarily that he was guilty - especially a five-figure settlement which would be far cheaper than the cost of litigating here in Washington. And so, I can understand why he may have entered into some sort of agreement and still be able to say I did not do anything. But there is a bigger question that you're asking is how is he handling this and...

KEYES: And how is it looking to the people out there?

CARY: Yeah. The evolving story is not helpful. The fact that Politico sat on this for 10 days and gave him a chance to get his ducks lined up and his staff chose not to do that it shows to me a level of inexperience on the national stage that is disturbing I think to most Republicans who are trying to decide who to back. But that doesn't mean that he can't survive this and that this is the end of his campaign. This is why we have campaigns, is to watch people when they get vetted; to learn things like this to see how they handle it and I don't think it's over yet.

I think we'll see over the next few days if this continues or if he's gotten ahead of it. He should have gotten ahead of it ten days ago and beat Politico to the story but he chose not to do that.

KEYES: Cynthia do you agree with that?

TUCKER: Let me first say, Allison, that I'm sorry that we the news media are spending so much time discussing this particular story because I don't think whether he sexually harassed somebody years ago or not, I don't think this is Herman Cain's most significant flaw. I think there are many, many other things that would disqualify him from being president.

The first 50 being that he simply doesn't know enough. Having said that, I agree completely with Mary Kate that he hasn't handled this very well. One of the things that campaigns are good for is showing you how a candidate handles a crisis, and so far he is stumbling through this one. And as long as he doesn't answer the questions definitively; put out as much information as he can. He can disclose everything without disclosing the names of the two women. The news media will continue to go after this and it will overwhelm everything else.

KEYES: I've got to say though, I know people that have been through sexual harassment investigations. They're kind of harrowing and there's some that might argue that having gone through something like that it's a little difficult to remember the blow-by-blow. So maybe it's not so much the story is evolving, but Mary Kate do you think it's possible that his memory is actually becoming clearer as he revisits this?

CARY: Yeah, I do. I think there's - this sort of stuff I think goes on all the time in corporations and associations and it didn't surprise me for example that his first reaction was go talk to the general counsel and the head of HR or that he recused himself. The quotes I read from all the board members at the time who would have been serving on his board were all shocked at this. They didn't know anything about it. They found it hard to believe.

They think he's a great guy. He certainly didn't behave that way in front of them. So I can see how this would be difficult for him to actually put his fingers on that quickly. Having said that, he had 10 days and could have made the same phone calls that Politico was making to refresh his memory.

KEYES: Cynthia, some people have been drawing parallels between Cain's sex harassment allegations and accusations that Clarence Thomas of course faced during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Is this fair? Is there apples and oranges here?

TUCKER: Well, Allison, one of the more bizarre things about this feeding frenzy is that so many right-wing Republicans have rushed out to play the race card in defense of Herman Cain. Most of these folks including Rush Limbaugh like to pretend that racism doesn't exist and they blast Democrats anytime they play the race card. But what we've heard from right wingers like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter is this is racist. Rush Limbaugh said that Herman Cain is being attacked with some of the ugliest racial stereotypes.

Excuse me? I seem to remember that Bill Clinton was accused of, and probably legitimately so, accused of sexual harassment. So, I find it interesting, almost funny, that right-wing Republicans are rushing to Herman Cain's defense by playing the race card.

KEYES: We could, okay, go ahead Mary Kate but briefly because we've got to move on.

CARY: Yeah, I was just going to say on the Clarence Thomas question, it is apples and oranges a bit here because these women signed a non-disclosure agreement. Their names have not appeared in the press and they may never speak. Anita Hill was willing to go under oath in front of klieg lights on national TV and we heard her side of the story. So, we may never get the facts in this case. The Restaurant Association's not talking and Herman Cain, you know, has said his part.

I think the women don't want to come forward and are ready to keep this in their past and so, that's what makes this different I think a little, and it we may have all we know now.

KEYES: All right. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are discussing what's on the agenda in the world of politics this week, including the sexual harassment allegations surrounding Herman Cain and President Obama's series of executive orders or initiatives. We are with Cynthia Tucker, professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, and Mary Kate Cary, a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. So, let's talk about Rick Perry now and the joy his campaign is having.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: They're trying to - they're trying to reboot. He's just released an ad that kind of subtly references his issues with debates. Let's take a listen:

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

Governor RICK PERRY: If you're looking for a slick politician or a guy with great teleprompter skills, we already have that, and he's destroying our economy. I'm a doer, not a talker. In Texas we created 40 percent of the new jobs in the entire country since June of 2009 and we cut a record $15 billion from our state budget. Now, they say we can't do that in Washington. Well, they're wrong and they need to go. I'm Rick Perry and I approve of this message.

KEYES: Mary Kate, after Rick Perry's debate showings, he just placed fifth in the recent Des Moines Register poll in Iowa.

CARY: Right.

KEYES: Is this ad going to get him off the ground here?

CARY: Yeah. There's two other ads that are running, as well, starting today in Iowa, that are paid for by one of these 5/27 outside groups that are not connected to him, but are in favor of him. And those are very professionally done, very good ads, as well.

Perry is really ramping up in Iowa. He's hired a bigger national-level staff. It's not just a bunch of folks from Texas. He's also making more appearances. He's done seven appearances since August, four more this weekend. Compare that to Mitt Romney, who's been there only three times all year. So he's getting very aggressive in Iowa. I think this Des Moines Register poll was over the weekend but came out this morning.

I think these ads may move him up in the polls a bit and he's fighting for every vote in Iowa. He's definitely got an aggressive campaign going and it'll be curious to see if he pulls it off.

KEYES: We're running a little short on time, so Cynthia, I'm going to have to come back to you on that topic because I want to talk about President Obama. He issued another executive order yesterday, this one for the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA as we know it, to examine ways to shore up prescription drug shortages.

He signed others involving student loans, home foreclosures and unemployment among veterans, using the slogan, We Can't Wait, in reference to the Congress. Cynthia, is this going to work? Is it a good strategy?

TUCKER: Well, it's really about the only strategy he has since he can't get the GOP-dominated House of Representatives to pass the jobs bill that he believes would make a real difference in bringing down the unemployment rate.

Let me say that the initiatives that actually have some chance of making a difference are the ones involving student loans because there is a staggering amount of debt now that students and former students are carrying, estimated to be nearly a trillion dollars more - than the credit card debt amassed by Americans.

But the other initiative that's even more important, I think, is that dealing with fending off foreclosures. Even Americans who have kept their jobs, many of them are having trouble trying to pay their mortgages and if he can do something about that, I think that would make a real difference.

KEYES: Really briefly, Mary Kate. Republicans have been complaining that he is bypassing them. Is he?

CARY: Well, he's trying to set it up, I think, as a do-nothing Congress that he can run against a year from now. But the fact remains, if unemployment's still at nine percent, these initiatives are not going to get him reelected on their own. I do think he's got a bigger problem getting the economy moving.

KEYES: All right, ladies. Got to go. Got to go. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She's now a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report and a former speech writer for President H.W. Bush. They were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington studios, and I suspect will have much more to say about a lot of this later.

CARY: Oh, yeah.

KEYES: Thanks for joining us, ladies.

TUCKER: Thank you.

CARY: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEYES: Coming up, student loan debt is a problem for many people in the current economic climate. Last week, the Obama administration announced changes to a federal policy to make it easier for some of them to meet those monthly obligations. But what does this mean for those recent or not so recent grads who might still be struggling with loan payments? We'll have the answers coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEYES: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes, Michel Martin is away. Coming up, need cash for your upcoming holiday? We'll give you a primer on the chances of getting a job this holiday season and whether or not that's a good thing.

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