DES MOINES, Iowa — Republicans in Iowa and other early voting states seem to be giving presidential candidate Herman Cain the benefit of the doubt for now. But they say they need to know more about accusations that he sexually harassed women who worked for him in the 1990s.
“It’s concerning, but it’s not a big deal,” said Cindy Baddeloo of suburban Des Moines. “Nobody’s perfect.”
She was one of more than two dozen undecided Republican voters who were interviewed in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina since the allegations surfaced last weekend. Cain has denied them.
LaDonna Ryggs, chairwoman of Spartanburg County GOP in South Carolina, said, “You give me some substance to the questions, and then we’ll talk.”
The Georgia businessman topped a national poll taken this past week. But even before the allegations enveloped his campaign, doubts had arisen about his candidacy.
Cain was sharply critiqued by his rivals over his tax proposal during a debate in Las Vegas last month. There were questions about his loyalty to the GOP base’s most enduring litmus test, opposition to abortion, after he said in an interview the decision was a matter of choice.
With just two months before the Iowa caucuses, Cain presumably should be seeking to close the deal with undecided activists in the state.
But he’s not scheduled to return to Iowa for two more weeks, and, if he follows through, he will have made just one trip to the leadoff caucus state over the course of three months.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is stepping it up in Iowa, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is gung-ho on advertising and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is hitting his stride.
Cain has denied making suggestive comments to female subordinates while serving as president of the National Restaurant Association. Yet he has given conflicting accounts about what, if anything, he knew about the alleged incidents as well as whether he knew about financial settlements two of his accusers reportedly received from the trade group.
He’s blamed the mainstream media, liberals and Perry’s campaign, which said it had nothing to do with it. A black conservative, Cain has said his race has played a factor in the turmoil.
On Friday, a lawyer for one of Cain’s accusers disclosed that she alleged “several incidents of sexual harassment” in a complaint filed more than a decade ago.
“As far as I can see, it wasn’t any different than Bill Clinton,” said New Hampshire Republican Howard Burrows, arguing Cain could survive the episode.
Likewise, none of the Iowa Republican activists interviewed at a GOP banquet in Des Moines, where most of Cain’s rivals spoke Friday, said the allegations disqualify Cain from their support or that he should quit the race.
“People are so much more focused on the economy,” said Des Moines area Republican Jason McKibben. “They’re tired of gutter politics.”
Republicans nationally haven’t bolted the former national restaurant chain CEO who has recently risen from obscurity to near the top of national polls with Romney.
A Washington Post-ABC News survey taken after the allegations emerged last Sunday showed Cain and Romney running nearly even atop the field, with most Republicans dismissing the harassment allegations. Seven in 10 Republicans say reports of the allegations don’t matter when it comes to picking a candidate.
But in a sign of the possible danger ahead, the poll found that Cain slipped to third place among those who see the accusations as serious, and Republican women were significantly more likely than men to say the allegations make them less apt to support the businessman.
While the questions apparently haven’t struck a blow against Cain in Iowa, their persistence is giving some GOP caucus-goers pause at a critical time.
A recent poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers sponsored by The Des Moines Register showed Cain narrowly leading in Iowa.
But Cain has a smaller campaign staff in the early states than many of his rivals.
The questions aren’t discouraging Iowa state Rep. Henry Rayhons from siding with Cain – yet.
“He’s got to come clean, or people are going to keep harassing him about it,” said Rayhons. “The longer it hangs out there, the less likely I am to support him.”