TOPICS > Politics

Cain’s Whole Message ‘Consumed’ by Harassment Claims

November 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Herman Cain faced a third day of scrutiny over sexual harassment allegations on Wednesday, when a third woman said he made inappropriate remarks to her during his time as the head of the National Restaurant Association. Ray Suarez discusses the new allegations and the political impact with Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times.
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RAY SUAREZ: Herman Cain today faced a third day of scrutiny involving sexual harassment allegations from his time as head of the National Restaurant Association. And today brought reports of a third woman who says Cain made inappropriate remarks in those years.

The Republican presidential candidate refused to answer questions about the matter after being swarmed by reporters at a campaign stop outside Washington this morning.

HERMAN CAIN, (R) presidential candidate: Let me say one thing. I’m here with these doctors. And that’s what I’m going to talk about. So, don’t even bother asking me all of these other questions that you all are curious about, OK? Don’t even bother.

QUESTION: It’s a good question, though.

Are you concerned about the fact that these women do want to — that perhaps…

HERMAN CAIN: Excuse me. Excuse me!

RAY SUAREZ: Late this afternoon, Politico reported that a veteran Republican pollster, Chris Wilson, said he saw Cain sexually harass a woman in a Virginia restaurant in the late 1990s.

For more, we are joined by Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent for The New York Times, who is covering the developing Cain story.

Jeff, what can you tell us about these latest allegations, which seemed to come one-two this afternoon in rapid succession?

JEFF ZELENY, The New York Times: I mean, things are really moving pretty quickly in this story.

The Associated Press is reporting that there is a third woman who is making allegations of sexual harassment from her time at the National Restaurant Association. But, more interestingly tonight, Herman Cain and his campaign are directly blaming the campaign of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas for furthering this story and trying to advance this story.

It’s a charge that the Perry campaign is denying. Herman Cain, when he ran for Senate in Georgia in 2004, his first political race, he employed a couple of people who now work on the Perry campaign. So he is saying in an interview with Forbes.com that these gentlemen knew about this at the time.

The Perry campaign is denying this. So right now, all this is still being sorted out. But one thing that is different, Herman Cain changed his demeanor today. He changed his tone. He’s gone from answering every question, which clearly has not served him very well, to refusing to answer questions, as we just saw there. So once again, this still is developing.

RAY SUAREZ: The source for the second story, Chris Wilson, is also working for a Republican campaign at this point. He says he saw what he saw in a restaurant in suburban Washington, in Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., and it was his feeling that it had to come out eventually, because other people were there and witnessed it.

JEFF ZELENY: In fact, he’s working for a super PAC that is working on behalf of the Perry campaign. So he’s not working directly for the Perry campaign. But he used to work as a pollster for the National Restaurant Association.

And he said in an interview with an Oklahoma radio station this morning — he lives in Oklahoma — that he witnessed many of these allegations happening in front of him in the late 1990s. He told us in an interview that — the same thing. But he said that he is not behind leaking the story initially.

So a couple things are going on here. The Cain campaign is continuing in its effort to blame the media on this. And they are trying to suggest that these campaign operatives have leaked this. But it really is not obscuring the fact that Mr. Cain still has questions to answer about this, and he knows he will have to do so.

RAY SUAREZ: Today started as something that looked almost like a good day for Herman Cain. Some new polls came out and some new fund-raising figures. Tell us more about that.

JEFF ZELENY: Well, one thing that is happening throughout this, a lot of his supporters are rallying to his side. We talked to Republican activists in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina.

They say that they’re waiting for the facts to come out and they, in fact, like Herman Cain. I mean, he is saying that he is getting a big fund-raising advantage from this. Of course, we’re not sure exactly if it’s because people are rallying to his side or the fact that he’s simply in the news more right now. He hasn’t had as big of a week as he’s had now throughout his whole campaign.

But I would be cautious in terms of looking at polls. Polls are a snapshot of what has already happened, not what is happening or what is going to happen in the future. So I think, more importantly on this, is he going to answer some of these questions that are coming out there and what is going to happen next on this?

His whole economic message has been completely consumed by this. He was hoping that this week in Washington would be time to sort of get some more support from Capitol Hill. He had dinner with some senators last night, but really his whole message has been consumed by this. And they know that he has to talk about this even more, and they know that this is not over.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Cain had suggested in an earlier interview with FOX News that the explosion of this story was at least in part racially motivated. Hasn’t he been a candidate who pooh-poohed those kind of accusations in the past, rejected attempts to find race in everything?

JEFF ZELENY: I mean, he certainly has.

But I think it was interesting in his FOX News interview. He said that he thought it was racial on the left, but he said he didn’t think that race was involved on the right, meaning that Republicans weren’t being racial in this.

So he has not talked — he has not talked very directly about race in a while on his campaign, but, you know, certainly that is one of the underlying dynamics here in this conversation. Would he be treated differently if he was a white candidate running for president?

I happen to think he would be, at least terms of allegations and things coming forward. We have seen several examples of this, of course, of other politicians facing similar charges. But a lot of his supporters, a lot of conservatives believe that this is like the case of Clarence Thomas, that this is — that he is being smeared just at this rise in his campaign.

Of course, all of this will sort itself out here, but it will be interesting to see how much more he blames this on race, because it was unusual for him to sort of go down that road yesterday.

RAY SUAREZ: Quickly, regarding the accusations of the first two women that we have heard about, often, when there’s a settlement paid, there’s also a nondisclosure agreement, but he’s been talking a lot about the case. Does that nondisclosure still bind the two women?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, that’s precisely what’s at issue here right now.

A lawyer for one of the women has asked the National Restaurant Association to release his client from this nondisclosure agreement. He argues that Mr. Cain has been already talking about this for several days now, which is, in fact, a possible violation of this.

So that’s something that the National Restaurant Association is going to have decide, whether they are going to release her, and then she will have to decide if she’s going to speak about this right now. But a lot of the people that we are talking to are very concerned that one side of the story is getting out here.

So if these women ever speak up, we certainly will have a second side of the story and we will find out that in the coming days.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times, thanks for joining us.

JEFF ZELENY: Ray, thank you.