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The Herman Cain campaign’s performance over the past 48 hours has been fascinating to watch. On the one hand, the initial response to Politico’s story about sexual harassment allegations was incredibly amateurish. Though the campaign had been told the story was in the works 10 days before it broke, the candidate was totally unprepared for direct questions about it on Sunday. His glaring non-denial put the finishing touch on a story that was otherwise a relatively sketchy outline: two women accused Cain of something, and while the reporters had seen a settlement, they only had it on characterize-but-don’t-quote terms, and couldn’t get the actual details of the allegation on the record. It was Cain’s refusal to answer questions — and his angry response when pressed — that made the article seem damning.
The campaign’s statements on Sunday night made matters worse; they tried to attack the story without addressing the substance of it — there was snarling, but no actual denial. The next day, when Cain began to address the allegations, he initially claimed he had no knowledge of any settlement, and later had to backtrack. Professional political consultants could use this as a sales pitch: You hire them precisely so this doesn’t happen to you. An experienced campaign team would not only have formulated a response once they knew the Politico story was in the works, they likely would have known months ago that this story existed and would be prepared well in advance to deal with it.
On the other hand, by evening, Cain was acquiting himself better than many much more seasoned politicians have under similar circumstances. His appearance on On the Record last night was a very, very smart move. Greta Van Susteren was the perfect choice of interviewer — both sympathetic and thorough — to get Cain’s side of the story out. Yes, he contradicted part of what he’d said earlier, but his explanation that he was still piecing together his memories came off as genuine (somewhat ironically, this is only believable because his campaign has been so clearly unprepared), and it was better that he clarify the misstatement sooner rather than later. Cain’s interview with Van Susteren added more new information to the story than today’s New York Times follow-up does; in other words, Cain is at this moment ahead of the story, which is exactly where a candidate facing charges of a scandal wants to be, pre-empting the drip-drip-drip of revelations.
All that said, the story isn’t over; if the picture gets uglier as we learn more about what Cain was accused of, this could still be bad news for him. But at this moment, it’s not hard to imagine Cain coming thorught this unscathed; if the details that emerge are really on par with Cain telling a woman that she’s the same height as his wife, all but the most misandristic observers will have to conclude that all that happened here were frivolous complaints and a nuisance settlement.