By Justin Sink - 11/01/11 12:39 AM EDT
Not many presidential candidates would break into a gospel song of forgiveness and redemption for a packed room of reporters who have spent the day doggedly inquiring about allegations of sexual harassment.
But not many candidates are Herman Cain.
But that news, which would send some candidates underground, seemed to embolden Cain, who spent the day passionately denying the charges with his trademark forthrightness.
The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO began his morning with what was supposed to be a sleepy economic analysis of his 9-9-9 economic plan at the American Enterprise Institute. But at the event, which was not sold out as of late last week, Cain found a gaggle of camera crews staking out the parking garage and members from nearly every major media outlet camped in the audience.
Attendees seemed surprised by the commotion, with many learning of Cain’s alleged harassment for the first time over a breakfast spread of fruit and croissants.
Organizers begged the audience to keep questions related to Cain’s economic proposals, at one point cutting off the microphone of ABC News’s Jonathan Karl, who began to ask the former businessman about the brewing scandal.
“I’m going by the ground rules that my host has set,” Cain said, conceding that he would “take all of the arrows later.”
But as the hour of economic analysis and policy discussion concluded, Cain seemed to sense a palpable desire that he address the allegations that threatened to upend his candidacy. Leaving the dais, Cain stopped briefly and addressed the assembled crowd.
“Yes, I do have a sense of humor. Some people have a problem with that,” Cain said. Then, smiling, Cain added: “Herman be Herman, and Herman is gonna stay Herman.”
That philosophy — one of unafraid, possibly even impolitic conviction and moral certainty — has won Cain favor in a Republican field where voters are hesitant to embrace the more polished and experienced Mitt Romney.
And it was the philosophy Cain relied upon for the remainder of the day, deciding to take the issue on directly in the hope that voters might appreciate his candor.
From the panel at AEI, Cain was rushed past reporters into an SUV and ushered to the Fox News studios, where he planned to address the controversy for the first time.
But even the scene at Fox was unusual, as a power outage in the building left hallways and offices dark.
Just outside the pitch-black green room before his Halloween appearance, Cain adamantly denied the charges to Fox reporters. He was defiant and jovial, sternly answering questions while cracking jokes to lighten the mood. As he headed for his TV hit, his chief of staff, Mark Block, and others wandered out to the newsroom, powered by a generator, to watch Cain’s appearance.
Cain flatly denied the allegations during his interview, saying that while incidents had been investigated during his time as president of the National Restaurant Association, the accusations were “absolutely false” and “baseless.” Cain did acknowledge that the association might have authorized settlement payments to his accusers, but said he had no knowledge of it doing so.
He also explained the absence of his wife.
“It was a conscious decision, because my adult daughter, with her kids, she has a life, my son, he has children, they have a life and my wife represents that calm and tranquility that I look forward to seeing when I get home,” Cain said. “We are running an unconventional campaign and the involvement of my family is also going to be unconventional, although you will see them on a selected basis.”
Following the Fox interview, Cain answered more questions, telling The Hill that he sees some similarities between his situation and the controversy that dominated Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991.
He also acknowledged that the charges will cost him “a few votes.”
“I don’t think it’s going to cost us a lot, because I believe people who have connected with me and my message — they have also looked at my record and they, you know, see me as a person of integrity and character,” Cain said.
From Fox, Cain and his team headed back across the city toward the National Press Club, where reporters had camped out since the early morning in anticipation of his remarks. Cain was quickly ushered upstairs for a meeting with advisers, with cameras tracking him even as he walked down a glass-enclosed hallway visible from the club’s foyer.
Block, who lingered in the hallway, was swarmed by reporters who asked the chief of staff to confirm whether the campaign had been given the name of the women who accused Cain of inappropriate behavior. On Fox News, Cain had said that part of the reason the campaign had not prepared a response was that it did not want to validate anonymous reports.
From there, reporters rushed to nab a spot within the ballroom, quickly filling not just the main floor, but an auxiliary balcony for overflow crowds. Some reporters attempted to argue and barter with the unrelenting Press Club staff manning the door while others shrugged and headed to the bar, where the C-SPAN stream of the event was being carried.
Cain spoke at length about how his executive experience would inform a Cain presidency, at one point chronicling how Godfather’s Pizza was expanding quickly, “trying to do too much with too little too fast” — a charge that might be leveled at the Cain campaign, struggling even before Monday with the weight of high expectations. But he seemed ready to engage the press on what he acknowledged without prompting was “today’s news story,” telling the assembled crowd he was “delighted to clear the air.”
Again, Cain seemed upbeat and affable. And while the candidate did not put all issues to rest — the extent to which he genuinely was unaware of his accusers and how the association had addressed their complaints is still unknown — he seemed generally willing to engage the press corps in hopes of putting the issue to bed.
Perhaps the most meaningful — certainly the most notable — moment came at the end of the event, when Cain was jokingly asked if he would treat the crowd to a few bars from his now-famous rendition of “Imagine There’s No Pizza,” a send-up of the John Lennon classic, “Imagine.” Cain declined that offer, but said that the request presented an “opportunity for me to share a little bit of my faith,” breaking into a soulful rendition of Dottie Rambo’s “He Looked Beyond My Faults.”
“I’ll never know why Jesus came to love me so,” Cain sang. “He looked beyond all my faults and saw my needs.”
— Bob Cusack contributed to this article.