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Cain Catches Flak, but Will It Sink His Candidacy?

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Washington was all a-Twitter (literally) Monday over Politico's story about the sexual harassment charges against Herman Cain -- and about Cain's serial self-contradictions.

Faithful Fox News viewers saw him in the afternoon saying he didn't know the terms of a settlement reached with the complainants and then saw him tell Greta Van Susteren in the 10 p.m. hour that he did.

The Politico story, quoting no named sources, described Cain's alleged misconduct as "conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature" and "physical gestures that were not overtly sexual."

That sounds bad but not horrible. A lot worse was alleged against Bill Clinton, and he was defended by many feminists.

But we don't know all the relevant facts in this case -- the exact charges, the demeanor of the complainants, the conclusions of the National Restaurant Association counsel, the amount of the settlement made in return for the complainants dropping the case.

And while we know that some accusations of sexual harassment are false or exaggerated, we know that many others are true.

Many conservatives around the country see this as an attack by the liberal press on a prominent black conservative who is statistically tied for the lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

They're correct when they say that the liberal mainstream media seem much more interested in exhuming ancient Cain peccadilloes than it was in learning about John Edwards' extramarital affair and love child.

Or in doing any reporting on Barack Obama's college grades, terrorist friends, extremist pastor or dodgy real estate deal. Can't spoil his narrative.

But the Constitution guarantees us a free press, not a fair one. Republicans and conservatives start off with some disadvantages in our political world, including a mostly biased press; Democrats and liberals start off with others, like the unpopularity of some of their core convictions. Things seem to balance out over time.

And it has to be said that Cain and, even more, his campaign spokesmen were unprepared to deliver a single definitive response to a story that they had known was brewing for several days. Just as it has to be said that Rick Perry was unprepared to defend his record in Texas in his first three or four presidential debates.

Yes, sometimes we see unpreparedness in the White House. But a candidate who is similarly unprepared will have a hard time getting there.

Some in the liberal commentariat have opined that conservative voters are rallying to Cain because he is black. Maybe so. But most seem to back him because he seems conservative, articulate and likeable.

We don't have any significant polling to tell us whether the Politico story has cost Cain support. My hunch is that it hasn't -- at least not yet.

But that leaves the possibility that his support may evaporate when voters have to decide for real. Pollsters ask respondents whom they would vote for "if the election were held today." But one thing everyone knows is that it isn't being held today.

That won't be true when Iowa Republicans venture into precincts caucuses on Jan. 3, the ninth day of Christmas, which is the first real voting day, as it was four years ago.

Then they may respond as members of a Midwestern focus group did a couple of weeks ago, when pollster Peter Hart asked them to raise their hands if they thought Cain was prepared to be president. No one did; not even those who had been saying positive things about Cain.

We can get some sense of who voters think is prepared for the job from the weekly polls on general election preference conducted by Scott Rasmussen.

He finds that a generic Republican leads Barack Obama by a 47 percent to 42 percent margin. Obama's 42 percent tracks pretty well with his job approval in Rasmussen and other polls.

Rasmussen finds that Mitt Romney runs 3 points behind the generic Republican and 2 points ahead of Obama. He's the only Republican running ahead.

Cain and Perry run 9 points behind the generic Republican in Rasmussen's polls. Other candidates run 12 to 15 points behind.

Cain has been leading or tied for the lead for most of a month now, and he may hold that position for a while. But will his lead hold when voters vote for real?

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (www.washingtonexaminer.com), is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.



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