Cain Hesitates When Questioned On Libya

The Herman Cain campaign is on the defensive Tuesday following a video that shows the candidate grasping and stammering for an answer to a question about Libya. The video was recorded during an interview with editors and reporters of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Melissa Block talks with Craig Gilbert, the newspaper's Washington bureau chief, who was part of the interview.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Yesterday, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain had some trouble in Wisconsin. He sat down with editors and reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a video-taped Q and A. Cain was asked if he agreed with President Obama on Libya. Cain first looked toward the ceiling and hesitated.

HERMAN CAIN: Okay, Libya.

BLOCK: A ten-second pause followed. Cain asked for clarification. Then...

CAIN: I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reason. No, that's a different one.

BLOCK: Another painfully long pause. Cain shifted in his chair, furrowed his brow...

CAIN: Got all this stuff twirling around in my head.

BLOCK: Herman Cain did finally offer an answer, suggesting that President Obama did not sufficiently vet the Libyan opposition before supporting it. But now the Cain campaign is busy trying to explain why he had such a hard time answering that question and others, as well.

Craig Gilbert was in the room in Milwaukee. He's Washington bureau chief for the Journal Sentinel.

And, Craig, watching that video, it's excruciating. I wonder what it was like in the room. Did it feel as long as...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: ...is clear on the tape?

CRAIG GILBERT: It was weird and it was painful. I think you knew immediately that this was a bad moment that was being captured on videotape. In the back of your mind, you thought about the Perry moment recently where he froze up on an answer to a debate question. This was like that. I mean, it was strange. It was bizarre.

We all know he's had trouble answering questions about foreign policy, but Libya is a subject that's come up again and again, and come up at debates, and he just was at a loss.

BLOCK: What has Herman Cain or his campaign had to say after this moment at the Journal Sentinel?

GILBERT: Well, when I talked to him about it on his campaign bus, he kind of gave me a look like this is the craziest thing in the world. He uses the word flyspecking to describe this sort of media obsession over gaffs and gotcha moments. And he said, you know, they're not just flyspecking my words but they're flyspecking my pauses. And he kind of smiled and said, I guess maybe I should be flattered that it's not just my words that are attracting such attention, but it's even my pauses.

BLOCK: And the campaign?

GILBERT: The campaign went through a flurry of spin about this. I could hear his spokesman, J.D. Gordon, field phone calls, when the thing went viral, on the bus. And one of them was four hours of sleep; he's getting questions from A to Z from umpteen different reporters on umpteen different issues; it was taken out of context. At one point he suggested that the video had been edited, which it hadn't.

So, you know, that's par for the course, I guess. But in this case, we know the power of video and this was pretty straightforward. I mean, he got a pretty simple question and we could see the answer.

BLOCK: Does it strike that this is effectively the moment that ends Herman Cain's campaign? He's been pretty resilient for a while in the polls. He's seen some slippage but...

GILBERT: I think it's hard to say any one moment is the tipping point for Herman Cain's campaign because it's a different kind of campaign that's already absorbed some blows and it's trying to operate on its own rules. And some of the Herman Cain followers are people that aren't going to hold this against him.

I think he's been slowly kind of dropping as a truly viable nominee. But I think he's going to be with us for a while.

BLOCK: Craig Gilbert, you've been in the room for other editorial board meetings with presidential candidates. Have you seen a moment like this before?

GILBERT: I've been there when there've been awkward moments because candidates were put on the spot and got tough questions on uncomfortable subjects. I've never seen a candidate just lock up and freeze over a simple kind of public policy question. It was really not like any experience I've had up close with a candidate before.

BLOCK: Craig Gilbert is Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Craig, thanks very much.

GILBERT: It's a pleasure.

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