Herman Cain's problems do not bode well for Mitt Romney. That sounds counterintuitive. If the two men are really battling for the lead in the GOP nomination, you'd think Cain's loss is Romney's gain. But the Cain voters have already taken a pass on Romney, and if past missteps didn't evaporate Cain's base, this might not either.
For the last week, Cain has conducted a tutorial on how not to handle a political crisis. Contrary to talking-point pundits on the right, Politico is not some left-wing website. It is a balanced, well-written clearinghouse for all things political. In fact, Politico would have been derelict in its duty had it not pursued a story about money being paid to an accuser of a presidential contender based on a complaint of sexual harassment from when he was with the National Restaurant Association.
For 10 days, Cain ducked responding to Politico, and finally, last Sunday, he was confronted by reporter Jonathan Martin outside the CBS studios where Cain was appearing.
"I'm not going to comment about two people that you won't tell me who they are. That's like negotiating ... I'm not going to comment on that, because ... I think that's one of those kinds of things that ... Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?" Cain said.
The implication was that Cain did not know who or what Martin was talking about.
That night, Politico published its story under a byline shared by four of its reporters. A Cain spokesman continued the charade when he went on "Geraldo" and said that the allegations were an attack on Cain from inside the Beltway, while refusing to deny the substance of the report.
On Monday, the story exploded, and Cain himself went on Fox News and denied knowledge of any settlement.
"If the restaurant association did a settlement, I wasn't even aware of it and I hope it wasn't for much," Cain said. "If there was a settlement, it was handled by some of the other officers at the other offices who worked for me at the time."
Then he reiterated those comments midday in front of National Press Club, where he said he was "unaware of any settlement."
Watching the peeling of this political onion, I tweeted an observation:
"One key Cain Q: was he still head of NRA when cases settled? If so, surely he knew that, making today's statement dubious."
My point, based on years of practicing law, was that there was no way the National Restaurant Association would have settled any claim without his knowledge and consent, assuming he was still at the organization when the dispute was concluded.
Later that same day, he completely changed course and told Greta Van Susteren that the matter "ended up settling for what would have been a termination settlement," meaning his prior statements that same day were untruthful. By the time he was interviewed that night by Judy Woodruff, he was playing a Clintonian game of definitions, only this time it is not dependent on the meaning of "is" but rather, the definition of agreement.
"I was aware that an agreement was reached. The word 'settlement' vs. the word 'agreement,' you know, I'm not sure what they called it," he said.
His handling was pathetic. And you can add his name to the long list of politicians whose response to a negative situation dwarfs the underlying facts.
What he should have done was speak truthfully from the outset. He could have: (1) acknowledged that he was the subject of a complaint; (2) denied that he engaged in any improper behavior; (3) said that because money changed hands does not mean that harassment occurred; and (4) said that he was barred from speaking further.
Instead, his attempts at diversion kept the story alive, and provided motivation for the women to come forward. The fact that one payment was for only $35,000 could be his eventual undoing, as that is a small sum for a claimant to risk losing by speaking publicly.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that this is all to Mitt Romney's gain. Not necessarily so. Just as the other Cain faux pas have failed to thwart his progress, thus far, he appears no worse for the wear.
Cain wasn't slowed by his inconsistent statements about whether he would negotiate the release of hostages with terrorists; or telling CNN that he opposed abortion but didn't believe the government should have a role when rape or incest were involved; or the fact that the Tax Policy Center projected his 9-9-9 plan would actually raise taxes on 84 percent of Americans; or when Bloomberg News calculated that, contrary to Cain's assertion of revenue neutrality, the plan would lessen government intake. Not even his lack of knowledge last week as to whether China is a nuclear superpower appears to be a setback.
Conservative pundits have been standing with him against the harassment charges. And the GOP base is following along.
In the first survey based on questions asked since Politico's story broke, Rasmussen showed that Cain has the support of 33 percent in South Carolina compared with Romney's 23 percent. A Suffolk University poll released Tuesday night showed him tied with Romney in Florida, while a Des Moines Register poll last weekend showed him similarly positioned in Iowa. There was also a Quinnipiac University poll released last week (but conducted mostly before the scandal broke) that had him leading Romney by seven points in a head-to-head matchup.
And so what is the real takeaway? That among a certain GOP base, such is the reluctance to support Mitt Romney that they will turn a blind eye to information that would doom a candidate in any other contest.
Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.