After weeks of resilient denials, 2012 upstart Herman Cain finally admitted that his embattled campaign is on the rocks today, telling senior staffers that he is “reassessing” his bid in light of new allegations that he conducted a 13-year extramarital affair with an Atlanta woman.
Campaign spokesman J.D. Gordon is already walking back Cain’s remarks, which were made to about 90 people on a conference call this morning. Gordon has assured reporters that his candidate has no intention of dropping out of the race.
But it looks like the writing is already on wall.
The most recent sex scandal may simply have accelerated the inevitable collapse of the Cain campaign. Already beleaguered by sexual harassment accusations and major foreign policy gaffes, the former pizza titan has been sinking in the polls for several weeks. And with the GOP primary elections fast approaching, it was probably only a matter of time before voters started to get skittish over Cain’s alarming lack of awareness about basic foreign and domestic policy issues.
Surprisingly, the new Cain scandal — and his increasingly likely exit from the GOP race — is actually bad news for both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, Cain’s fellow top-tier candidates.
Mitt Romney: The presumptive Republican frontrunner, Romney has the most to lose if Cain drops out of the race. As a generally unloved and uninspiring candidate, Romney’s best path to win the nomination is if conservative primary voters split their votes between Romney’s flawed Republican rivals.
Until now, that strategy appeared to be going swimmingly. Romney has been unable to break 25% support in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, where social conservatives make up a significant GOP voting bloc. But conservatives have been unable to settle on an alternative candidate, making it increasingly likely that no clear opponent will emerge to challenge Romney.
But Cain’s departure from the race would mean one less candidate for conservative voters to choose from. And if he leaves quickly, there is still time for voters to coalesce around a not-Romney campaign.
Newt Gingrich: On the surface, Gingrich appears to be the most likely beneficiary of Cain’s potential exit from the race. Barring some miraculous phoenix recovery from one of the other candidates, Gingrich now looks like the only viable contender left to challenge Romney. Moreover, his positive message is similar to Cain’s, and his borderline annoying policy knowledge is enough to reassure voters freaked out by a field of relative political neophytes.
The problem for Gingrich isn’t Cain’s collapse — it is the way that Cain is collapsing. News of Cain’s alleged affair opens up old wounds for Gingrich, who has somehow managed to get voters to suspend their recollection of his own marital misdeeds.
If voters are turned off by Cain’s alleged indiscretions, they may find it hard to turn to another candidate with a checkered personal past — especially if another campaign decides to start doubling down on “family values.”
Responding to Cain’s alleged affair last night, Gingrich told CNN’s John King that the stream of accusations are “something that Mr. Cain will have to settle with the country and talk to the country about.”
But it is not clear if Gingrich has followed his own advice — he has occasionally tried to frame his adultery/divorces as a redemption story, but tends to avoid the subject altogether.
Of course, it is possible that the Cain sex scandal flames out before it has a chance to splatter on to Gingrich. The former House Speaker also benefits from the fact that his marital past is already widely known.
But Cain’s deflation exposes potential vulnerabilities at the top of the field, and opens up an opportunity for 2012 castoffs like Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman — and perennial runner-up Ron Paul — to regain momentum. Unlikely as that may seem, the 2012 race has taught us to expect the exception, not the rule.
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