When Atlanta businesswoman Ginger White stated in multiple interviews that she had been involved in an on-again, off-again 13-year affair with Herman Cain, it was only the latest — and perhaps most damaging — allegation of the autumn for the presidential hopeful.
White was the fifth woman to accuse Cain of some sort of sexual harassment or relationship, dating back to his tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. The first allegations occurred in late October, when Politico reported that two women had come forward with claims of sexually aggressive behavior. According to the accusers, they signed settlements with the Restaurant Association for an undisclosed financial payout. White’s story came with phone records and an admission from Cain that he had been paying her bills and expenses, with his wife unaware of the relationship.
The presidential run struggled after the initial Politico story broke. Cain’s spokespeople called the allegations a “smear campaign” that was “settled amicably.” A day after the Politico story, Cain claimed no knowledge of the charges, but later that night admitted he was aware of an agreement between the women and the association. The changing story led to late-night shows teeing off on Cain’s faulty memory.
The campaign also went so far as to accuse Texas governor Rick Perry’s team of planting the story. (Curt Anderson, a staffer on the Perry campaign, had previously advised Cain’s Senate contest in 2004.) Cain’s chief of staff later retracted the complaint but did nothing to quell the defense that the tea party Republican was a victim of “the establishment.” Mainly absent from the campaign trail, Cain’s wife Gloria supported her husband against the allegations.
The accusers leveled various claims against Cain. According to Politico, there were conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or suggestive content, as well as gestures that made the women uncomfortable. Fourth accuser Sharon Bialek alleged that Cain had touched her in an inappropriate way and had implied that she could trade sexual favors for a job with the NRA. White said that Cain had never harassed her or treated her poorly, lavishing her with gifts and trips.
Cain’s clunky response to the controversy (“I just started to remember more“) might have been a result of the same thing that spurred his popularity in Republican circles: He’s a relative newcomer to politics. A Georgia native, Cain rose through the restaurant industry, taking over as CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. He got a taste of politics in a 1994 town hall with President Bill Clinton, when Cain briefly debated the commander in chief about employees’ health care. He later became president of the National Restaurant Association, which he built into a top lobbying group.
After finishing a distant second in the 2004 GOP Senate primary in Georgia, Cain became popular on Atlanta talk radio and the tea party speaking circuit. He announced his presidential candidacy in May. As candidates battled for front-runner status, Cain’s popularity surged, culminating in late September with an upset win over Governor Perry in the Florida straw poll.
Even before the harassment allegations, Cain was forced to explain prior actions. He had to clarify long pauses and awkward questions when asked about President Obama’s handling of Libya. Cain dug himself a deeper hole later. In another instance, Cain said his suggestions to build an electrified fence across the U.S.-Mexico border were a joke, then confirmed that he was indeed serious. And he expressed concern over China gaining nuclear capability, which the country has had for nearly half a century.
Cain has slipped to third in recent polls, and there have been reports that his campaign’s recent “reassessment” after White’s allegations will lead to him dropping out of the race. The Iowa caucuses are on January 3, 2012.
Chris Wilson is an editor at Yahoo! who has previously been involved in team coverage of World Cup 2010, the royal wedding, and the September 11 Memorial page.