LAS VEGAS, Nevada — Steve Foley has been supporting Herman Cain’s presidential campaign since before it was even officially a campaign. In January, Foley launched the independent website Citizens4Cain.com to report news about the campaign and rally grassroots conservative activists behind Cain. Having been through a few campaigns as an online media consultant to Republican candidates, Foley is not surprised to see Cain coming under increasingly hostile scrutiny this week.
“This is what they’re going to do,” Foley said. “When you’re the front-runner now — Cain’s a front-runner — bull’s-eye right on your back, everybody’s going to come with all their slings and arrows. That’s just the way it’s gonna be.”
Now at or near the top of the Republican presidential field according to recent polls, Cain came under fire from his GOP rivals during Tuesday’s debate here, and he has been loudly criticized for two gaffes he made this week. First, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Cain botched his answer to a hypothetical question about releasing terrorism suspects in order to obtain the release of a U.S. soldier held hostage. The question referenced the situation faced by Israel in the Galid Shalit case and began: “Imagine if you were President — we’re almost out of time …” This was a classic “gotcha” interview technique, both in terms of its timing at the end of the interview and the hypothetical nature of the “what if” question. But front-runners have to be able to deal with “gotcha” questions, and the Atlanta businessman did not deal well with it, subsequently explaining that he “misspoke.”
The second gaffe came Wednesday in an interview with Piers Morgan, also of CNN. The transcript shows the host repeatedly interrupting Cain’s answers after Morgan asked him about his views on abortion. Cain began by restating the “no exceptions” opposition that won him applause two weeks ago at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, but Morgan then asked him to respond to a hypothetical question: “If one of your female children, grandchildren was raped, you would honestly want her to bring up that baby as her own?” Cain’s answer sounded very much like a pro-choice argument, except that the question wasn’t whether he would want abortion to be legal, but rather whether he’d want his child or grandchild actually to raise the baby born under such circumstances. (The possibility of adoption was not discussed.) And, as Cain said in his initial response to Morgan’s question, “You’re mixing two things here.” Nevertheless, Cain’s answer provided an opportunity for his opponents to criticize him as insufficiently committed to the pro-life cause, with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum sending out a fund-raising e-mail that said: “In fact, Herman Cain’s pro-choice position is similar to those held by John Kerry, Barack Obama and many others on the liberal left.”
“Gotcha” interviews and criticism from rivals are nothing unusual in politics, but Cain’s gaffes provided the political press with an opportunity to pronounce doom on the Tea Party-backed candidate who has surged ahead in recent weeks. “Cain’s Troubles Multiply” was the headline on a Washington Post item Thursday by Jennifer Rubin, while a column by Wayne Woodlief in the Boston Herald carried the headline: “Cain Already Deflating.” Cain’s campaign has been dealing with doomsayers since Day One, however. And having worked for months to help their candidate reach contender status — with contributions pouring in at a pace that may exceed $5 million for the month of October — insiders bristle at the media’s attempts to write off Cain so early.
“The people who are picking out these supposed gaffes are simply validating Herman Cain as the presumptive front-runner,” said one source close to the campaign. “These are the same people who were against Herman Cain before he ever announced.”
Nor do Cain’s supporters — who have backed him since the days when the long-shot candidate was regarded by pundits as “Herman Who?” — think he’ll be damaged by his occasional gaffes. “If this stuff was going to hurt him, it would have hurt him six, seven, eight months ago,” said Chris Barron, a Republican strategist best known as chairman of the gay conservative group GOProud. “If Herman Cain was your typical well-polished politician — if it was Mitt Romney who was on [TV] and had said something [controversial] — this type of gaffe would absolutely cost him. But the fact is, one of the reasons why people love Herman Cain is because he’s not a polished politician, because he’s not talking off of talking points given to him by highly paid consultants. At the end of the day, people like Herman Cain because they have a feeling for him, a sense of what he actually believes…. It’s that plain-spokenness that has attracted people to Cain.”
Similar views were expressed by another early Cain fan, Erick Telford of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Telford got to know Cain while working for Americans for Prosperity, which has worked closely with the Tea Party movement, organizing events where Cain became a crowd favorite as a speaker at rallies during the past two years. “It makes me feel good about politics every time I hear him speak,” said Telford. “I can’t think of anyone in the [Republican presidential race] with a more compelling personal story.”
Cain’s recent gaffes — and the media reaction to them — have not dimmed Telford’s enthusiasm. “The average American knows sometimes you say things or things get taken out of context, and I think they’re not going to hold that against him. He’s in the cross-hairs now because he’s rapidly emerging as the front-runner or in the top tier, and people are going to start gunning for him.… Most people are generally pretty forgiving about that kind of stuff and this may be a big story for a couple of days, but it will fade into the background in time.”
Those who support Cain, as an outsider challenging the status quo, see strength where many pundits see a weakness. “He’s not going to give you a polished politician’s answer,” says Foley, the Citizens for Cain founder. “If you want that, vote for Romney — a finger-in-the-wind guy who has had every position on every issue since the beginning of time.” Cain’s supporters are looking for something different, Foley says. “He’s appealing to a populist, grassroots, Tea Party liberty movement kind of folk — us, the real people.… He’s not trying to get Washington, D.C. to love him. He’s not trying to get all the media to love him.… Herman Cain is for real.”
Pundits who seem over-eager to write Herman Cain’s political obituary might pause to consider that he has so far defied all such predictions.