Latest Cain Accuser's Charges Raise Question: Where Does It End?

Sharon Bialek arrives for her New York City news conference, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011. i i

hide captionSharon Bialek arrives for her New York City news conference, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011.

Richard Drew/AP
Sharon Bialek arrives for her New York City news conference, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011.

Sharon Bialek arrives for her New York City news conference, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011.

Richard Drew/AP

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain for the fourth time in a week has attempted to beat back accusations of sexual harassment with the same defense.

The women - all of them - are lying.

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There was just one big difference Monday, when he issued his latest statement saying he'd been falsely accused. The accuser had gone public, and personally provided graphic details of Cain's alleged harassment when he headed the National Restaurant Association.

Sharon Bialek alleges that 14 years ago when Cain was head of the association he made a sexually inappropriate advance when she sought him out for help finding a job.

Bialek, who had recently lost her job at the association's Chicago-based education foundation, alleged that Cain reached under her skirt, and that he pushed her head toward his crotch after the two met for drinks and dinner in Washington.

When she resisted, she alleges that he said, "You want a job, don't you?"

The previous three accusers, including two women who received cash settlements from the association in 1999 to settle their harassment claims, have chosen to remain anonymous.

"This puts a face on his accuser and humanizes the story," says David Yepsen, former long-time political columnist at the Des Moines Register. "It's no longer a bunch of lawyers issuing statements, and a campaign issuing denials."

"It makes it real," said Yepsen, who heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

But just how, and how quickly, the multiple allegations will affect Cain's surging campaign for his party's 2012 nomination remains to be seen.

His diehard supporters in Iowa, where he recently edged out Romney for the top spot in the Des Moines Register's 2012 GOP caucus poll, are characterizing the harassment claims as, old, and well-timed attacks on an unexpected and new frontrunner.

"The last week in Iowa, his support has done nothing but increase," says Lisa Lockwood, who handles Cain's Iowa communications.

A "money bomb" effort launched online last Thursday to raise $999,000 for Cain's "Iowa Fund," she noted, has brought in close to $700,000 with two days to go before the deadline.

"There are countless people who would like to see him not leading in the polls," Lockwood said. "I think Iowans are seeing through this as some kind of game playing by someone who stands to benefit by hurting Herman Cain."

Some top Republicans, however, given the drumbeat of allegations, have begun questioning not just Cain's behavior, but his response to the crisis. After Bialek's press conference Monday, Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Christian conservative Iowa Family Leader organization, told the Des Moines Register that Cain needs to address the accusations forthrightly or "a cloud of doubt will envelop his candidacy."

Cain has also faced pressure from former Bush strategist Karl Rove, who has used his perch at Fox News to repeatedly urge Cain to address the harassment accusations.

"Saying, 'I'm not going to talk about this,' is not going to make it go away," Rove said Monday.

And at least two of his fellow candidates have played off the allegations. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann last week in a meeting with Baptists in Iowa said that this year Republicans "can't have any surprises with our candidates." Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, on NBC's Meet the Press

Sunday urged Cain to "get the information out and get it out in total."

A Gallup poll released Monday showed Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney tied in a national Republican presidential preference poll at 21 percent each. Gallup conducted the poll last week, starting a few days after news broke that the two women had received harassment settlements after accusing Cain of harassment.

Cain has also made enormous gains in name recognition, climing from 21 percent in April, according to Gallup, to more than 78 percent by mid-October.

His name recognition has, no doubt, increased over the past week but not in the way the campaign had imagined.

For some, like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an unsuccessful GOP presidential candidate in 2008, the unfolding controversy is much ado about nothing.

On his Saturday talk show, on Fox, Huckabee equated the sexual harassments allegations against Cain with his own experience being called "sweetie" by cashiers at a Popeye's fried chicken restaurant.

Several people interviewed in Iowa who have been around the candidate there say that Cain is known for his friendliness and extreme flirtatiousness with women - from waitresses to campaign volunteers. Most have never seen him cross the line.

But just last week conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace said that Cain made "inappropriate and awkward" comments to two of the host's female staffers.

And the comments did not involve the candidate calling the women "sweetie."

Cain, so far, says Yepsen, the former Register columnist, "has shown a lot more durability than I thought he would."

"But were in the middle of this hurricane," he said. It's too early to say definitively how this will affect him."

It's also unclear how the fact that public allegations are being made by a white woman against a black presidential candidate will play with the electorate.

"We're in uncharted waters here," Yepsen says.

For now, the denials and blame-the-media strategy may have helped Cain sustain some hits, he says, adding: "But how many more of these are out there, how much longer does this story go on?"

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