Herman Cain’s latest presidential campaign implosion has put some of the Republican Party’s most active voters in a distinctly uncomfortable position: deciding whether to abandon an accused adulterer to side with an admitted adulterer.
Even before Monday’s allegation by an Atlanta businesswoman that she and Cain had a 13-year affair, the GOP contest was moving toward a two-man race between steady front-runner Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the latest candidate to catch the fancy of the anti-Romney forces. That movement now is expected to hasten.
Cain told backers Tuesday that he was “reassessing” his candidacy in light of the newest accusations, which follow allegations that he sexually harassed several women in the 1990s. His campaign offered no clue as to when he might come to a decision about his future.
In Iowa, where voting in the 2012 contest will begin in just over a month, an alternative to Romney has been intensely sought by the potent bloc of evangelical voters, who remain suspicious of his Mormon faith and his past support for abortion rights and gay rights. Many are throwing their support to Gingrich despite his history of extramarital affairs and two divorces.
“Newt’s got the best shot of heading Romney off at the pass,” said Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and the state’s Republican national committeeman.
Evangelical voters are expected to cast about half the votes in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Social conservatives will also play a dominant role in the South Carolina primary on Jan 21. If Gingrich were to win Iowa, “it’ll be Gingrich and Romney” in South Carolina, predicted Warren Tompkins, an unaligned GOP strategist in Columbia, S.C.
Gingrich has vaulted into the top tier on the basis of his performance in televised debates, which have largely driven Republican voter preferences this year. His grasp of government policy and international affairs, after nearly 40 years in politics, have given him an edge over Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Cain, an Atlanta businessman, both of whom have stumbled over foreign policy and other issues in debates.
But an indication of discomfort in some quarters over Gingrich’s rise came Tuesday when a new attack on the former House speaker surfaced online from a group calling itself Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government.
The anonymous attack on the group’s website said that Gingrich was “not an acceptable choice among Christians.” It also stated that Gingrich had been “unfaithful to two of his previous spouses.”
The attack was timed to coincide with an expected endorsement announcement by the Family Leader, a group headed by Bob Vander Plaats, an unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate who is popular with many religious conservatives.
Scheffler, who is neutral in the presidential race, said Gingrich may not have put his moral failings “completely behind him.” But he said that many pastors in the state “have accepted the premise that he’s asked God’s forgiveness.”
Gingrich’s personal history isn’t “near the problem it once was. He’s explained it enough times,” added Scheffler, who met privately with Gingrich about a year ago, along with about 20 pastors, for a detailed discussion of the matter.
Larry Morris, 61, an evangelical Christian from West Des Moines, said he recently decided to support Gingrich after concluding that he had “truly repented” and been forgiven. “We are told and we believe that when we repent God remembers our sins no more,” he said.
The former Georgia congressman has also benefited from the persistent wariness toward Romney’s Mormon faith. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that white evangelical Protestants were more likely than most Americans to view Mormonism as a non-Christian religion; those same voters are also less likely to back Romney for the nomination, the poll found.
As his caucus prospects brighten, Gingrich has also been criticized by social conservatives over his antiabortion views (he would grant exceptions in cases of rape and incest and when the mother’s life is in danger) and past support for federally funded embryonic stem cell research.
“Newt is famous for being all over the board,” Cary Gordon, an influential pastor from Sioux City, Iowa, told the Des Moines Register. “He is admirable in many ways, but I won’t back him. I don’t trust him.”
Cain, for his part, told senior staff members in a Tuesday conference call that he was assessing whether the affair allegations “create too much of a cloud” for his campaign to continue.
In an email to Cain’s Iowa supporters, his state director, Steve Grubbs, called businesswoman Ginger White’s credibility into question, reiterating a news report that White had settled a sexual harassment claim against an employer in 2001 and had filed for bankruptcy in the last several years. He also noted that White lost a libel lawsuit filed by a former business partner when she failed to respond to the lawsuit.
“If you are choosing whether to believe Herman Cain or Ginger White, Herman Cain is from our perspective the credible voice,” he said in an interview.
But Grubbs seemed bothered by a statement released Monday by Cain’s attorney, Lin Wood, who said a candidate’s “private sexual life” is not the business of the public or the media.
The tone of Wood’s remarks also dismayed Richard Land, an evangelical leader who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“What I read into it was, he wasn’t denying the allegation, but it didn’t involve sexual harassment so it didn’t rise to the level of being discussable,” Land said. “Mr. Cain is running as the family values candidate, and when you’re the family values candidate, you better understand you are asking to be judged by a different standard.”