When Wednesday's Republican presidential debate ended, CNBC switched to a post-debate panel featuring Larry Kudlow, who raved that Herman Cain had an "unbelievably good debate tonight" and said Cain's performance "blew me away."
The Atlanta businessman had help from a friendly audience at the debate, held at Michigan's Oakland University. When moderator Maria Bartiromo asked whether sexual harassment allegations against him raised "character issues," the crowd booed the question. And they loudly cheered Cain's answer: "The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations." When Bartiromo's colleague John Harwood tried to get Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to address the accusations against Cain, the crowd again booed the question, and applauded when Romney refused to criticize Cain. People "can make their own assessment," Romney said, and that was the last time the topic was raised all night.
It is far too early to say that Cain has put the accusations behind him, but by the time Wednesday's debate ended, his successful performance had apparently changed the narrative of what seemed a potentially campaign-killing crisis just 48 hours earlier.
The crisis -- Sean Hannity called it a "media firestorm" -- involves claims of harassment during Cain's tenure in the late 1990s as president of the National Restaurant Association, made by at least four women. For eight days after Politico broke the story on Oct. 30, the accusations were vague and the accusers anonymous. That changed Monday when Sharon Bialek, a former employee of the NRA's educational foundation, held a New York press conference and claimed that Cain groped her in a car in July 1997. Appearing with high-profile feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, Bialek demanded that Cain "come clean" and confess. Instead, Cain responded with his own press conference Tuesday, in which he emphatically denied Bialek's accusation. Appearing with his own attorney, prominent Atlanta lawyer Lin Wood, Cain said, "I have never acted inappropriately with anyone, period," and rejected any suggestion that he would quit the campaign: "Ain't gonna happen."
Meanwhile, however, a second woman -- one of the anonymous accusers cited in Politico's original story -- was identified as federal employee Karen Kraushaar, who made a public statement Tuesday in which she described Cain as a "sexual predator." Asked about Kraushaar's accusation during his press conference Tuesday, Cain said her complaint at the NRA had been investigated and found "baseless," although she reportedly received a severance payment of $45,000.
When these two accusers went public, it quickly became apparent why anonymity had been to their advantage. Bialek was revealed to have a troubled financial history, having declared bankruptcy twice, been sued for bad debts and evicted from an apartment. Well-known TV journalist Bill Kurtis spoke of Bialek, who once worked for CBS, as having "a history" and a "track record." And it was reported that Kraushaar, after leaving the restaurant association, filed a complaint against her next employer, the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Kraushaar initially demanded thousands of dollars in payment, a reinstatement of leave she used after the accident earlier in 2002, promotion on the federal pay scale and a one-year fellowship to Harvard's Kennedy School of Government," the Associated Press reported Wednesday. One of her complaints was about an innocuously humorous e-mail about whether computers are male or female.
This information, damaging to the credibility of Cain's accusers, was shared with conservative listeners by talk radio hosts like Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, and also reported on Fox News. Some Republicans who had thought Cain's campaign doomed on Monday were reconsidering by Wednesday evening, when conservative columnist Ann Coulter highlighted evidence suggesting that Cain had been targeted by President Obama's Chicago allies.
The boos and cheers from the audience at Wednesday's debate in Michigan seemed to indicate that Republicans are not ready to abandon Cain, and may be ready to rally behind him. Cain continues to lead the RealClearPolitics national poll average, as he has for the past three weeks. Sometimes the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb, and any sense that Cain's campaign is in jeopardy was overshadowed during the debate by the blunder of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who found himself unable to name the third of three federal departments he proposed to eliminate. That prompted one top fundraiser to declare to a reporter that Perry's campaign is "over."
Ten days into the campaign crisis provoked by the accusations against him, Herman Cain is not yet out of the woods, but after Wednesday, he may be able to see sunshine breaking through the trees.
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