Herman Cain, beleaguered by charges of sexual harassment, was all over Washington last week — an odd choice of venue, considering that the Iowa precinct caucuses are now just 58 days away and the New Hampshire primary 65.
But as I learned when I sat next to Cain Friday morning during a long-scheduled taping of Richard Carlson’s Danger Zone radio program, Cain seemed unfazed.
In conversation before the taping he dismissed the controversy. “No documentation. No witnesses. And I didn’t cancel a single event this week” — although his wife, Gloria, accompanying him for the first time, cancelled an interview with Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren.
Political scientist Jay Cost, in a midweek post on the Weekly Standard blog, indicted Cain and all the other Republican candidates except Mitt Romney for breaking the rules of “the great game of politics.”
“Yes, the political game as it is played in 2011 is terrible and is in need for major reforms,” he wrote. “But if you want to win, you need somebody who knows how to play it.”
Cain isn’t buying that. He brags that he is an “unconventional candidate” with an “unconventional campaign” and an “unconventional message that is resonating around the country.”
I tend to think the old rules still apply. But Cain’s current lead in the polls, maintained after the sexual-harassment story broke last Sunday in Politico, suggests there may be something to his argument.
One rule Cain has broken is that candidates have to spend a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire, making personal contact with voters who, legend has it, won’t support a candidate till they’ve had a chance to talk to him three or four times.
Cain hasn’t spent much time in the two first-in-the-nation states this year. When I went to his headquarters outside Des Moines three days before the straw poll, the door was locked and the place looked empty.
Cain says he spent time there last year, and in 2011 he’s been communicating with voters nationally through new media on his trips to states with later primaries.
There may be something to that. This year, voters have been getting to know potential and actual candidates through cable-news and YouTube videos.
YouTube videos made New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a national celebrity and created a boomlet for his candidacy. He declined to run, but I can’t recall a similar groundswell for a governor of a mid-sized state.
The cable news debates have attracted far larger audiences, probably heavily tilted to actual caucus-goers and primary voters, than debates in previous cycles, and the candidates’ performances have had an impact on voters (ask Rick Perry).
Another old rule is that a whiff of scandal sinks a candidacy. But 79 percent of Republicans in this week’s ABC/Washington Post poll say that they don’t care about the charges against Cain. On talk radio and in the right blogosphere, many dismiss the charges as an unfair attack by liberal media.
Over the past week, Cain has serially violated the old rule that you must respond to scandal charges definitively and consistently. In one of his Fox News appearances, he acknowledged cheerfully that he was “unprepared” for the charges, though his campaign had 10 days’ notice of them.
This has astounded conservative bloggers like Commentary’s Pete Wehner (“unbelievably amateurish campaign”) and the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin (“Cain seems intent on making the controversy worse”).
I suspect Rubin is right when she says that Cain’s strength in polls last week does not represent voters’ final verdict on him. And his inconsistent stands on issues like abortion and ignorance that China already has nuclear weapons may still hurt him.
But Cain’s stance as a non-politician who refuses to obey the rules of the great game of politics is at least momentarily a political asset in a year when opinion about conventional politicians of both parties is near an all-time low.
This cycle feels like 1992, when Ross Perot zoomed ahead of George Bush and Bill Clinton in the polls and, despite leaving and re-entering the race in bizarre fashion, won 19 percent of the vote in November.
I’m still inclined to think Cain’s support will evaporate sooner or later. But for a moment Friday, the thought occurred to me that I was sitting next to a future president of the United States.