WASHINGTON--This is one Halloween Herman Cain will never forget.
For months, Cain's presidential campaign planned a days-long media tour of Washington, D.C., complete with a policy speech about his economic plan at a conservative think tank sympathetic to his ideas, national television appearances where he could repeat his best talking points, a sold-out luncheon at the National Press Club and meetings with some friendly Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Until Sunday night, Cain had plenty of great things to talk about: A recent poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers showed Cain leading former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the state by 1 percent--a statistical tie, of course, but the numbers affirmed Cain's continued dominance in the field. A second poll out of Texas showed Cain leading the state's own governor, fellow presidential contender Rick Perry, also by a statistical tie of 1percentage point. And, of course, there's always his "9-9-9 Plan."
But Cain's hopes for a flawless run through the city were dashed Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, when Politico published a story showing that Cain faced accusations of sexual harassment when he was president of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
Cain's day in Washington began at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, where he was scheduled to partake in a wonky, policy-based discussion about the nation's fiscal problems and his economic plan, which would scrap the current tax code and replace it with three federal 9 percent taxes on sales, personal income and business income. The place was packed, but not because anyone wanted to hear the details of "9-9-9." Sex, not fiscal policy, was the topic consuming the minds of the members of the Washington press corps who made the trip. (It's usually the other way around.)
Reporters crowded into a conference center on AEI's top floor. Late-comers stood around the edges of the room along the wall and photographers crawled on their knees, maneuvering between the aisles. Some news outlets sent as many as four journalists to cover the event. After a half hour of "9-9-9" discussion, everyone looked bored as they waited to hear something--anything!--about the harassment allegations.
Finally, AEI moderator Kevin Hassett opened the floor for questions. Everyone perked up.
"The questions need to be about the topic at hand," Hassett warned.
Most followed the rules, but after several questions about the intricate details of an economic plan that will likely never be passed into law, ABC News correspondent Jon Karl couldn't take it anymore. He raised his hand for a question, and a staffer brought him a microphone.
"As you're well aware there is a big cloud that is affecting your ability to get this out, which is the story in Politico, and I was just wondering if you can clear it up for us right now," Karl said.
The moderator quickly interrupted him. "That question is inconsistent with the ground rules that we have," Hassett said.
The AEI staffer pulled the microphone away from Karl, but he kept talking, raising his voice so you could hear him across the room.
It was no use. "I'm going by the ground rules that my host has set," Cain said, moving on.
Dismayed, most attendees went back to to checking their Blackberrys and iPhones.
After the event, reporters still hoping for an exclusive quote darted out of the conference room after Cain, but were met by more AEI staffers, who blocked the exits until Cain made it safely down the elevator. Once they got word that he was in the parking garage, reporters began the trek downtown to the National Press Club, where Cain had promised to answer questions about the alleged scandal.
At the Press Club, space to hear Cain was at a premium. I set my bag down on a chair to reserve a seat (elementary school rules still apply) and went off in search of food before the speech. By the time I returned, there was a line out the door, and a television reporter had moved my things aside and taken the seat for herself.
"If you're just blogging, you should go upstairs," she told me, pointing to the balcony.
No use arguing--she seemed a rather determined type--so I gathered my things and joined my fellow non-TV reporters above the main floor.
As it turned out, I wasn't the lowest on the pecking order. Members of the Press Club staff were strictly checking for official media badges, and when they found Robert Stacy McCain, a non-credentialed gonzo type who writes for the American Spectator and has probably covered Cain longer than anyone else in the room, they swiftly escorted him out.
Downstairs, Cain entered the room just after 12:30 p.m. and after eating lunch, he got up for his speech. It was the moment we had been waiting for all morning.
As promised, he fielded questions about the allegations.
"I would be delighted to clear the air," Cain said when National Press Club President Mark Hamrick asked about the Politico story. "I have never sexually harassed anyone. ... While at the National Restaurant Association, I was accused of sexual harassment. Falsely accused, I might add. ... When the charges were brought, as the leader of the organization, I recused myself and allowed my general counsel and my human resources officer to deal with the situation."
"This bullseye on my back has gotten bigger," Cain added when Hamrick asked who he thought was responsible for bringing the story to the press. "We have no idea of the source of this witch hunt. Which is what it is. We have no idea."
As for explanations about the story, that was it.
Since Cain first announced his bid for president, he has insisted that he's running a "non-traditional campaign." Despite walking into the Press Club with the shadow of potential scandal hanging over his head, Cain--for better or for worse--stayed true to his unconventional approach. Before closing his remarks, Cain did something no other candidate would have done, let alone under the same circumstances: He broke out into song, the gospel hymn "He Looked Beyond My Faults."
With that, he waved goodbye and disappeared out the door. Cain left the Press Club without talking to the news horde, slipping out a side elevator.
"Did that just happen?" a balcony reporter asked.
"Only Herman Cain," said another.
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