This time the subject was Libya. The candidate was Herman Cain. The question was whether he agreed with the way President Barack Obama handled the matter. The answer, drawn out over more than five awkward minutes, produced another “oops” moment in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
When asked the question by the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Cain leaned back in his chair, looked at the ceiling, closed his eyes and said, “Okay, Libya.” He then searched his thoughts for 11 seconds before asking whether Obama supported the removal of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was captured and killed in October, seven months after Obama made the decision to try to oust him.
Cain said he did not “agree with the way he handled it for the following reason.”
“Um, nope that’s a different one,” he then said, waving away his thought.
Cain fidgeted in his chair, searched the ceiling again and adjusted his suit jacket before allowing, “I gotta go back, see, got all this stuff twirling around in my head.”
His answer, which was videotaped and went viral online and on cable TV almost immediately, was reminiscent of the painfully long 53 seconds that Texas Gov. Rick Perry spent at a candidates debate last week trying to remember the name of a federal agency he would eliminate if elected. Perry, unable to pull the Energy Department from his mind, gave up with an “oops.”
The episode comes at an especially inopportune time for Cain, who has been trying to regain momentum after allegations of sexual harassment. The former Godfather’s Pizza executive faced more problems on that front Monday, when a former boyfriend of Sharon Bialek, who alleges Cain groped her in a car, held a news conference to say he saw the two together. The candidate has said he never met Bialek and had never heard her name before she stepped forward.
Bialek worked for the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s when Cain was its president.
Victor Zuckerman, a pediatrician who lives near Shreveport, La., said that in 1997, he and Bialek were invited to a private reception in a Chicago hotel suite after a day of restaurant industry meetings and that Bialek later told him that Cain had sexually harassed her.
“I can confirm that when she returned she was upset. She said that something had happened and that Mr. Cain had touched her in an inappropriate manner,” Zuckerman said, standing with Gloria Allred, Bialek’s attorney. “She said she handled it and didn’t want to talk about it any further.”
The stumbles by Perry and Cain have solidified Mitt Romney’s position as the candidate to beat and have provided an opening for someone new to challenge him. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) is the latest person to step into that role, rising to top-tier status in polls after a string of strong debate performances.
In his interview with the Journal Sentinel, Cain never fully answered the question about Libya. He said Obama should have done a better job evaluating the rebels’ motivations and the likely outcomes of U.S. involvement, but he was uncertain about what Obama had done.
An interviewer asked: “You don’t think they were” assessed?
“I don’t know that they were or were not assessed. I didn’t see reports of that assessment,” Cain replied.
A campaign spokesman said Cain was functioning on four hours of sleep after flying from Atlanta to Milwaukee and had been asked questions about everything from collective bargaining to his “9-9-9″ tax plan at a roundtable discussion that included a dozen journalists.
“He just took a moment to get his bearings,” spokesman J.D. Gordon said. “It took a while to switch gears between so many different topics all around the map.”
Gordon added that Cain did not say anything inconsistent with his belief that Obama did not clearly identify who the opposition was in Libya or how the rebels would govern.
Cain’s answer, along with his previous stumbles on foreign policy — including a quip that he doesn’t need to know who the president of Uzbekistan is, calling it “Uz-beki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” — add to the perception that he lacks a deep knowledge of the subject.
Polls out this week show that the back-and-forth over the harassment allegations has begun to put a dent in Cain’s support among Republican voters. In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 44 percent of Americans say they have unfavorable impressions of Cain, up from 27 percent in mid-October, before the allegations against him became public.
In addition, most Republicans now consider the accusations to be a serious matter, a switch from a Post-ABC poll taken just after they were reported. Fully 74 percent of Republican women call the allegations serious, up from 39 percent in early November.
Cain’s problems don’t appear to be going away. Allred suggested that she plans to engage in a slow rollout of information that she says corroborates her client’s story. Four women have alleged that Cain harassed them.
Allred stood beside Zuckerman as he explained that in 1997, he had been part of a conversation with Bialek and Cain, and that Cain had invited him and Bialek to an “exclusive” after-party at the Chicago hotel suite.
Anticipating some of the same scrutiny that Bialek has faced, Zuckerman said he is a pediatrician in good standing, with no malpractice claims. He acknowledged a recent bankruptcy filing, citing the economy and rising health-care costs. A review of court records showed that Zuckerman listed nearly $573,000 in assets but more than $805,000 in liabilities. His debts included more than $183,000 in overdue lease payments, $50,000 in unpaid taxes, and tens of thousands of dollars in credit card and other bank debt. Zuckerman said he is up to date on a court-approved payment plan.
Cain has said repeatedly that he has not engaged in any inappropriate behavior and that the sexual harassment allegations against him are “baseless.” Lin Wood, Cain’s attorney, questioned Zuckerman’s credibility and argued that even if everything Zuckerman said is true, none of it refutes Cain’s recollection.
“Herman Cain, over the course of the last 15 years, has probably had dinners and functions with thousands of people,” Wood said. “And while it may be memorable in the minds of some who met him when he was president of the National Restaurant Association, in the real world it may not have been memorable to Mr. Cain.”
The day ended on a more positive note for Cain as a long-awaited interview with his wife aired on Fox News. Gloria Cain, who has previously steered clear of the spotlight, strongly vouched for him, saying: “I’m thinking he would have to have a split personality to do the things that were said.”
Staff writers Nia-Malika Henderson and Amy Gardner, staff researcher Lucy Shackelford, and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.