Is the right finally turning on Herman Cain?

As allegations mount, some conservatives are going wobbly. Is the persecution narrative in danger?

Published November 3, 2011 12:15PM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at the Congressional Health Caucus Thought Leaders Series, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)    (AP)
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at the Congressional Health Caucus Thought Leaders Series, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (AP)

The notion that the Herman Cain sexual harassment saga amounts to a smear perpetrated by liberals and their media allies because they feel threatened by prominent black conservatives has been ridiculous since the story broke. But it has nonetheless been promoted relentlessly by many of the right's most popular commentators. That may be changing, though.

Wednesday brought several new developments that expanded the story's scope, prompting some on the right to express new doubts about whether Cain might actually have engaged in improper behavior and reinforcing criticism of the improvisational, self-defeating way he's handled this entire mess.

The day's biggest news was that the number of women who allegedly were subject to troubling conduct by Cain grew from two to five. First came a report that a woman who worked at the National Restaurant Association under Cain in the late 1990s is now alleging that he made "inappropriate" remarks to her and asked her to join him at his apartment. The woman, who was tracked down and granted anonymity by the Associated Press, said she never filed a formal complaint against Cain but was aware of one other NRA employee who did.

This revelation was followed by a claim from a conservative radio host in Iowa that Cain made "awkward" and "inappropriate" comments to two of the station's employees last month. The host, Steve Deace, recently wrote a blog post attacking Cain but made no mention in it of his conduct at the radio station. On Wednesday night, he posted a statement online that called Cain "uninformed and morally inconsistent."

Additionally, a Republican political consultant who worked with Cain and the NRA, claimed that he witnessed Cain sexually harass one of his accusers at a restaurant in Virginia in the late 1990s and predicted that if the details of her story ever emerge it will end Cain's candidacy on the spot. There were, however, questions about the motives of the consultant, Chris Wilson, who now works for a Super PAC aligned with Rick Perry.

Cain's campaign blasted the new allegations as "baseless" and claimed they were the latest components of "an appalling smear campaign." As if trying to grab control of the story, Cain himself then made news, accusing one of Rick Perry's consultants, Curt Anderson, of being the source for the initial story that started this saga, which appeared on Politico Sunday night. Anderson served as Cain's general consultant when he ran for the U.S. Senate in Georgia in 2004, and Cain claims that during that campaign he told Anderson that he'd faced a sexual harassment allegation while running the NRA.

"I told him that there was only one case, one set of charges, one woman while I was at the National Restaurant Association. Those charges were baseless, but I thought he needed to know about them. I don’t recall anyone else being in the room when I told him," Cain told Forbes.

Anderson vehemently denied this, insisting he first learned about the accusations when he read Politico's story this week.

Processing this, some conservative opinion-leaders voiced skepticism and even hostility toward Cain, a sign that -- perhaps -- the ground was beginning to shift on the right.  In a post titled "This Actually Makes the Cain Campaign Look Worse," Red State's Erick Erickson scoffed at the candidate's efforts to blame Anderson and emphasized that Cain seemed utterly unprepared to address any of this, even though he was given 10 days notice by Politico before the first story appeared this week

Even more damaging, I think, is when people tie it all together. Herman Cain’s consultant from 2004 uncovered it in 2004 and Cain launched a Presidential bid in 2011 without coming up with a damage control plan on a major issue that could destroy his campaign?

(Never mind that Herman Cain says he only told Curt Anderson about one woman)

And now there is a third woman?!?

What. The. Hell.

At the American Spectator, meanwhile, Quinn Hillyer took dead aim at the Cain-as-persecuted-black-conservative narrative that has been so popular on the right this week:

Now, it really sickens me that Cain has played the race card by asserting that the harassment story occurred because he is black. I hate it when the Left plays the race card, and I hate it when the right does. No, the story didn't come out because he is black; the story came out because ANY candidate for president who had multiple allegations of harassment against him would eventually need to face the story because somebody in the media would report it. The story came out because the allegations already were there.

He added:

Indeed, conservatives may be giving Cain a pass on lots of things -- his only-borderline-relevant experience, his verbal slips, his lack of coherence on numerous issues -- because he is black and they subconsciously are so eager to defend a black conservative from lefty/media attacks.

But the possibility that influential conservatives may now be rethinking their reflexive defense of Cain was best captured by a series of updates by Glenn Reynolds on one of his Instapundit posts. The post began with Reynolds encouraging the liberal smear narrative but ended with an update about Wilson's claim that he had witnessed Cain harass one of the NRA complainants. "Well, this might hurt," Reynolds conceded.

Granted, this is hardly a scientific sampling of elite conservative commentary. If the right's mega-voices -- Limbaugh, Hannity et al. -- continue to favor the persecution narrative, it could mitigate the effect of some lesser-known conservative opinion-shapers turning on Cain. As it is, the very preliminary polling data now available suggests Cain's standing with Republicans may actually have increased during the scandal's first two days earlier this week. But Wednesday was a busy day, and there's no sign that the steady drip of new revelations is about to stop. In other words, even conservatives who spent the first half of this week rallying to Cain's defense may be reaching the same conclusion as Hillyer: "Vetting is a good thing."

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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