Monday Morning Politics: Cain Stained, Super Committee Struggles

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Republican presidential contender Herman Cain addresses an audience at AEI(American Enterprise Institute) for Public Policy Research on October 31, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowUSA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page rounded up national politics from the weekend, and looked forward at what's coming this week.

Scandals by the slice

Herman Cain continues to lead the pack of presidential hopefuls, but with two potential scandals surfacing in the past week, doubts about the shelf life of his candidacy linger.

The first such "scandal" came when Cain's team released a web ad that featured his campaign manager smoking a cigarette. It was bizarre, but far from a campaign-killer. Susan Page suspected that most voters who are drawn to Herman Cain probably wouldn't mind that his ad included a smoking man. Callers to The Brian Lehrer Show proved her right.

The other scandal doesn't need quotation marks around it: Politico reported over the weekend that two female employees of the National Restaurant Association brought charges of sexual harassment against Herman Cain while he was running the organization in the late '90s. The National Restaurant Association allegedly gave the women a financial settlement and avoided going to court, but Cain's camp has so far refused to comment on the matter.

Brian Lehrer wondered, if there had been a settlement, whether Cain may be legally prohibited from speaking about the harassment charges publicly. Susan Page didn't buy it.

I don't think that passses the common sense-o-meter test. A presidential candidate—the leading Republican candidate—can't address a major issue that allegedly happened in his career?...It's credible that the women cant talk about it or the National Restaurant Association can't talk about it, but I believe Herman Cain will have to talk about it.

The vetting process

Cain's response: This is just the Beltway media taking shots at the hottest candidate. When Rick Perry burst on to the scene, he was Republican enemy number one. Now that the Texas governor's star has faded, reporters are looking for a Cain albatross à la Perry's unfortunately-named hunting camp.

Page said that such digging is reserved for candidates who hang around a long time and appear to have a real shot at taking the nomination. That Cain has done both of these things is a big surprise.

This is part of a vetting process for a candidate who has done better than any of us expected. Herman Cain has really defied the expectations of political reporters who didn't take him seriously even as he was rising in the polls. We were slow to recognize the appeal he had with the Republican electorate. Now he's beating Rick Perry in a poll in Texas.

How it hurts Cain in Iowa

If the scandal proves true, would it endanger Cain's long-term chances? Susan Page said it was definitely possible, given a primary schedule that gives conservative, evangelical Republicans in Iowa the first say.

Sexual harassment is offensive to everybody, but one thing we know about the Iowa caucuses is how many evangelical Christians and social conservatives go...This is the kind of issue that they will take seriously.

Before the story broke, the most recent Iowa poll showed Cain out in front, a trend that Page said could be reversed by the revelation. At this point in the campaign, and given the field of candidates to choose from, staying on top is a delicate balancing act.

Nothing is settled. 75 percent of likely caucus-goers say they might change their mind. This is not a field that has been cooked...I think [the scandal] could make this poll instantly out of date.

Meanwhile, in Washington...

The media loves a sex scandal, but there are bigger fish to fry on the horizon. Remember that debt reduction super committee that's supposed to save our country from financial ruin? Did you know their deadline, which, if missed, will trigger deep and mandatory spending cuts across the board, is less than a month away?

Yeah, it doesn't look great. Susan Page said that given how far apart Republicans and Democrats remain on the issues, it would be remarkable for a deal to be struck by Thanksgiving. But that doesn't mean Congress will hold themselves accountable and suffer the consequences.

The next Congress could decide that they want to change the provisions of the deal that was struck that set up the super committee. I think we're a long way away. It's one of the things that keeps the penalties from inaction from being as draconian as they might seem.