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11.04.11

The GOP's Nightmare Debate

A weekend face-off in Texas between Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich puts a spotlight on allegations of harassment and infidelity. Jill Lawrence on the Republican Party’s problem with women.

Is there a phrase that means the opposite of Dream Team? It would come in handy to describe the upcoming face-off between Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. The Texas showdown has been advertised as a revival of the exalted Lincoln-Douglas debates, but a better description at this point might be What Women Don’t Want.

The audience at the event, a fundraiser for the Texas Tea Party Patriots PAC at the Woodlands Resort & Conference Center near Houston, won’t be hearing about three women’s sexual-harassment allegations against Cain. “It’s going to be totally focused on economic issues. It will not be at all sidetracked by that kind of thing,” says Suzanne Guggenheim, cofounder of the Tea Party group.

The hosts promise “a substantive discussion of the most pressing issues facing America today.” But imagine if those in the audience had thought clouds above their heads. Don’t think about elephants, the old joke goes, and then of course all you can think about are elephants—in this case the allegations engulfing Cain and the checkered marital history that dogs Gingrich.

So far, Cain is not feeling any pain on the political front. His campaign says it has raised $1 million since the harassment story erupted Sunday night. And a new Rasmussen poll of Republicans taken since then shows Cain leading the field with 26 percent, followed by Mitt Romney (23 percent) and Newt Gingrich (14 percent), with everyone else in single digits. Gingrich isn’t doing badly, either. That showing is tantamount to a surge for him, and he says his contributions are surging as well.

Not surprisingly, the Cain-Gingrich Debate 2011 has set a record for advance sales of tickets, which range from $150 to $1,000. Guggenheim has been monitoring reaction to the Cain allegations and had not noticed them getting any traction as of Thursday. “People really have the impression that this is a made-up thing,” she tells The Daily Beast. But she added that could change: “If something comes up that seems legitimate and true, obviously people will then react to it. People who are conservative and vote for their values, this would obviously affect them.”

Rush Limbaugh, harking back to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill fiasco and omitting the Paula Jones case that conservatives used to try to topple Bill Clinton, has characterized sexual harassment as “a political tool of the left.” Yet sexual harassment has the potential to offend social and religious conservatives in particular. “When you’re the traditional-values folks, you’re judged by that standard,” Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said this week at the National Press Club. Evangelical women, he added, “are far less forgiving than evangelical men are on this issue.”

With the general election looming, the last thing the party needs is a showcase for a pair of candidates who could alienate female voters.

A new Washington Post/ABC poll confirms that is the case. Asked about the Cain situation, 25 percent of Republican women but only 12 percent of men said it makes them less likely to vote for Cain. Early reaction from a Christian women’s leader is another indication of the potential for harm to Cain among conservative women. Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America, told Politico that she had experienced harassment and that Cain ought to get the facts out. “I know in a very personal way that sexual harassment exists, and that it’s demeaning and painful. It should never be tolerated in the workforce and certainly not the White House,” Nance said.

Gingrich had affairs during his first two marriages and is now married to his third wife, a former House staffer he dated while leading the impeachment drive against Clinton. Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says Gingrich has to some degree “weathered the storm on his infidelities. It’s been in the press a long time, he’s done his mea culpas.” Cain’s woman problem, by contrast, is a dilemma right now for the Republican Party—and one the Texas debate exacerbates. “You don’t want to continue to build up Cain, which is what it does,” Greenberg says.

With the general election looming, the last thing the party needs is a showcase for a pair of candidates who could alienate female voters. Women already seem to be wary of the GOP. Asked in a new Quinnipiac poll whom they’d vote for if House elections were held today, 46 percent of women said they’d choose the Democrat and 31 percent picked the Republican. More than half of women chose President Obama in a series of hypothetical matchups against Cain, Gingrich, and Rick Perry. Gingrich won 34 percent of women to Obama’s 54 percent; Cain did slightly better at 37 percent to Obama’s 52 percent.

Romney did best but not particularly well, drawing 38 percent of women to Obama’s 50 percent. Greenberg says Romney holds particular appeal for moderate or independent suburban women who tend to be fiscal conservatives but more liberal on social issues. “He has things about him in the past that make him seem more moderate and reasonable,” Greenberg said. “He’s got quite a good profile for independent women, and they are a really critical constituency in this election.”

That is no doubt why Democrats are moving quickly to make sure women don’t get comfortable with Romney, who seems increasingly likely to be the Republican nominee. In a new assault, the Democratic National Committee is accusing him of “the most egregious attack on women’s rights in a generation.” The issue is Romney’s support for constitutional amendments that establish “personhood” for fertilized eggs. Democrats say such amendments would “ban IUDs, the morning-after pill, in-vitro fertilization, and all abortions.”

Given Romney’s strong position, it would be easy to dismiss the Cain-Gingrich debate as a sideshow. Yet the latter two are riding high in national polls and have shone in the many of the primary debates. Their 90-minute mano-a-mano encounter Saturday night is designed to bust out of the constraints of the normal debates. It is moderated by Iowa Rep. Steve King, who, like the two candidates, is known for colorful utterances. Anything could happen, and C-Span will be there to make sure millions are witness to it. Republicans who don’t see Cain or Gingrich as the future of their party may want to cross their fingers and hope this Lincoln-Douglas reenactment will be little noted nor long remembered.