Herman Cain is finally being taken seriously as a presidential candidate -- which means reporters are out to dig up dirt from his past and then parse every single word in his campaign's denials about that dirt. Cain has been accused of running for president just to sell books, of not bothering to learn much about the biggest issues of the day, of mismanaging his campaign staff. But he's tied with Mitt Romney at the top of national polls and in Iowa, so the nontraditional candidate is going to have to answer traditional questions. "Yes, I am an unconventional candidate, and yes, I do have a sense of humor and some people have a problem with that," Cain told reporters at the American Enterprise Institute Monday, after saying he was prepared to take "arrows" later in the day. "But Herman is going to stay Herman."
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Cain's spokesman J.D. Gordon called in to Geraldo Rivera's Fox News show Sunday night to push back against a Politico report that two former Cain employees had received five-figure settlements for sexual harassment claims against him. But it sounded like Gordon hadn't quite thought through what he was going to say. When Gordon claimed the story was an example of the liberal media attacking a conservative, Geraldo demanded, "Are you denying there was a cash settlement to two employees of the National Restaurant Association, yes or no?" Gordon responded, "You would have to get that from the National Restaurant Association." Cain's campaign manager, Mark Block, offered a denial that suggests he's leaving himself some wiggle room in case the story is true. He told the Los Angeles Times' Mike Memoli, "I am not personally aware of any cash settlement relating to sexual harassment charges to Mr. Cain." Later, Block went further, telling NBC News' Chuck Todd, "Herman Cain has never sexually harassed anybody. Period. End of story."
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Cain himself didn't do much better. When Politico's Jonathan Martin asked him, "Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life of harassment by a woman?" Cain paused, then asked the reporter, "Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?"
But the sexual harassment claims were not Cain's only problem Monday morning. He's also facing charges in the more boring but potentially more serious area of campaign finance law. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Daniel Bice reports that two top Cain aides -- Linda Hansen and Block -- ran a private corporation in Wisconsin that helped kick off Cain's campaign by paying for $40,000 in travel and iPads in February and March. The group, Prosperity USA, also paid the Congress of Racial Equality $100,000 just before Cain gave a speech to the conservative group; Cain wasn't paid for the appearance according to his financial disclosure forms. Cain's filings with the Federal Election Commission don't mention paying back Prosperity USA, "which now appears defunct," Bice says. Election law experts told Bice the transactions are problematic: "If the records accurately reflect what occurred, this is way out of bounds," a Washington lawyer who advises Republican candidates told Bice.
Cain's campaign hasn't yet figured out how to respond to the story. It didn't return Bice's phone calls, and Block emailed to say the charges just weren't important enough to figure out how to respond to them yet. He wrote, "Will be able to respond to you, but need to schedule time to review questions. Obviously in the midst of a Presidential campaign I cannot drop everything."
The Washington Post's Eric Wemple says that charges of unwanted sexual advances are a big deal, but so is Cain's staff's problems with dealing with the story. The Hill's Ian Swanson predicted Cain would be facing questions about the sex stuff all day, beginning with swarms of reporters and cameras showing up for his tax talk at the American Enterprise Institute, followed by his appearance at the National Press Club Monday afternoon. The National Review's Robert Costa tweets this photo of the crowd at Cain's AEI talk:
The Washington Examiner's Philip Klein jokes, "New theory: AEI planted Politico story to get DC journos to sit through tax reform discussion." If only they were distracted that easily!