WASHINGTON — Herman Cain's repeated attempts to brush aside sexual harassment charges are faltering and his once high-flying presidential campaign is likely to suffer, according to neutral Republicans.
Cain had managed to tread water for more than a week after news reports first surfaced of two anonymous charges of sexual harassment made when he led the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. But when Sharon Bialek went public Monday to say he'd once groped her, the story started to seriously threaten Cain's public support.
"He was already slipping before these stories came out. This will accelerate his decline," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said.
"Now we see Cain supporters having pause," Iowa Republican analyst Craig Robinson added. "He can no longer laugh it up. This is serious, serious stuff."
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"My sense is he's dropping like a rock," South Carolina Republican strategist J. David Woodard said.
In his latest attempt to stem the controversy, Cain scheduled a news conference for 5 p.m. EST Tuesday. His campaign also put out an aggressive statement titled "Who Is Sharon Bialek," detailing six lawsuits over financial matters in which she's been a defendant.
Cain has denied all allegations of sexual harassment, and his defenders are challenging the truthfulness of Bialek and her publicity-hungry attorney, Gloria Allred.
Late Monday, Cain issued a statement challenging the news media to find out whether Bialek had been paid to accuse him. Conservative talk radio and TV hosts also challenged the woman. On Fox News, Sean Hannity labeled the story "Anatomy of a Smear." Guest analyst Dick Morris charged repeatedly that Bialek was doing it for money.
Morris, caught in a 1996 scandal of his own with a call girl, offered no evidence that Bialek was paid. She's denied receiving any money.
Cain already was starting to suffer some erosion of support before the stories broke. Ayres said Cain's support — while still high — had dropped in some polls and in states such as Iowa in the week before.
"It was pretty clear he did not have the level of knowledge that we normally expect in the leader of the free world," Ayres said. "Republicans really liked the guy, saw him as a huge American success story. But very few Republicans could really, truly see him in the Oval Office."
Still, Cain was able to survive the first week of reports that the National Restaurant Association had paid to settle two cases of sexual harassment allegations made against him when he was the group's CEO, in large part because the charges were first leveled in the news media.
"It is the nature of conservatives and the tea party to be highly skeptical about the news media," conservative strategist Keith Appell said.
"This is typical media bias," said Jennifer Ennenbach, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Tea Party. "They found this unknown woman who has come out of the woodwork with this story."
But Cain's responses for days were ham-handed, with changing details and contradictions. That served to keep the story alive in a media frenzy akin to the one earlier this year when former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., was caught sending sexually suggestive photos of himself to women.
It also reflected the fact that Cain, a novice at presidential politics, has a small campaign staff, which also has scant experience.
Then Bialek put a face on the charges, and provided details for the developing story.
"Names, faces and especially contradictions are what give these stories legs," Appell said. "That has happened one too many times for the Cain campaign."
That Bialek was represented by the celebrity-seeking Allred could lead some Republicans to look skeptically at the accusation. "Some people wonder who's paying Gloria Allred," Appell said. "Although I do think Sharon Bialek was believable."
Potentially worse, Bialek and the anonymous earlier women reinforced one another. The first women refused to go public with their stories, but they did file their complaints at the time. Bialek never filed a complaint — she didn't work at the association at the time — but she did state her charge in public and in detail.
"The problem with these allegations from the start was, if someone comes forward and puts a face on it and can discuss details, it gets to be a really messy, messy story," said Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican website and a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party.
(David Goldstein contributed to this article.)
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