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12.02.11

Herman Cain's Departure Helps Other Candidates, but Which Ones?

A departure by the ex-pizza executive would shake up the wild-and-crazy GOP race. But sorting out who wins and who loses takes some doing.

Is he in or out? Herman Cain says he’ll make it official Saturday after a date night with his wife Gloria, and a morning meeting with top supporters in Atlanta. Cain has scheduled an afternoon announcement to declare whether he’ll stay in the race for the GOP nomination or drop out amid the drip-drip-drip of scandals that continue to dog his candidacy.

From his latest ad buys in Iowa to his rousing Friday stump speech in all-important South Carolina to the newly formed (and un-ironically named) booster group “Women for Herman Cain,” Cain is giving the distinct impression that even he has not decided that he’s ready to give up the fight. With enough money from supporters, a decent poll or two, and a confession from Ginger White that she made the whole thing up, he could turn this thing around, right?

Maybe not. The latest poll for The Des Moines Register shows Cain at a startling 8 percent among likely Iowa caucus-goers, a number that was at 12 percent last Sunday when the four-day poll began, but cratered to 6 percent after White came forward with her accusation of a long-term affair with the former pizza magnate. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll, tells The Daily Beast that Cain was down from his best numbers in Iowa before the latest scandal, but that l’affaire Ginger may be the last straw for Iowans who had planned to back him in the crucial January caucuses.

“It’s sort of a death by a thousand cuts,” SeIzer says. “I don’t think it’s just this one thing that’s done him in. But if there have been enough things that have put him on the edge, maybe this tipped him over.” Polls in South Carolina and Florida show Cain suffering a similar fate in those early states.

If Cain does get out of the race on Saturday, who would win, who would lose, and who would wish the Herman Cain Train had never left the station?

Let’s start with winners.

Newt Gingrich: With polls in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida all showing Gingrich building a substantial lead over Mitt Romney, the former House speaker could be peaking at the perfect moment to mop up Cain’s conservative supporters in the Anybody-But-Mitt-Romney primary. A Bloomberg poll conducted in November showed that a plurality of Cain’s supporters would pick Gingrich as their second choice in the race, with Rick Perry as their third choice. With Perry’s electability in serious doubt, let’s put the Perry people in Gingrich’s column and call this a two-man race.

Mitt Romney: Newt Gingrich has not picked up his reputation for being a “verbal weapon of mass destruction” for no reason. Poor kids without a work ethic? Eradicating communism from the Congress? As the verbose Georgian expounded on his latest ideas before rapt conservative audiences this week, you could almost see him weaving the rope to hang himself. Romney’s team knows their enemy’s weakness, and understands that the four weeks left before the Iowa caucuses are more than enough time for Gingrich to blow himself up, if Romney can’t manage to take him out himself.

Barack Obama: Is this a Republican primary or a clown show? With the GOP field stuck in a quicksand of its own scandals, flubs, and sheer mayhem, the otherwise vulnerable president seems to be getting a free pass from Republicans as they circle their wagons and commit suicide. Even with his own approval rating at a historically low 43 percent in Gallup’s latest tracking poll, Obama still beats the generic Republican running against him. Where are Jeb Bush and Chris Christie when their party needs them? Even more to Obama’s advantage, should Cain drop out, the Republican field loses its only dose of racial diversity and leaves minority voters with a set of very white people to choose from.

L’affaire Ginger may be the last straw for Iowans who had planned to back Cain in the crucial January caucuses.

Losers:

Mitt Romney: Yes, a winner and a loser. Isn’t that always Romney’s fate in life? If Cain drops out of the race, Romney suddenly seems to be at the mercy of events and other people’s missteps, assuming the primary suddenly becomes a two-man race between him and the whip-smart Gingrich. After five years of laying the groundwork for a perfect presidential campaign, Romney has become so perfect he’s actually annoying grassroots conservatives who want passion and “authenticity,” not an MBA and a talent for telling them what he thinks they want to hear. A Cain-less primary will focus Republican voters’ minds in a hurry, and Romney still seems incapable of getting 80 percent of them to go along with the gag and just pick him for president.

Newt Gingrich: Like Romney, the end of the Cain train could be a double-edged machete for Gingrich as well. Without the Cain sideshow, Gingrich becomes reporters’ No. 1 Google search for the next six months. From the bills he passed as speaker to the topics and attendees of his $60,000-a-pop speeches to what he really did for Freddie Mac as a “historian,” the wild dingos of the Washington press corps will spend their time gnawing through Gingrich’s 30-plus years of Washington insiderdom, even as he sells himself as a Beltway outsider as horrified as the next guy by what’s happening under the Capitol’s dome.

Gloria Cain: Whether her husband stays in the race or bows out Saturday, it’s impossible not to sympathize with the woman who tried to stay out of the public eye, but has been dragged into it nonetheless in the worst way possible. Campaigns come and go, but some candidates seem to have a way of hurting their families for a lifetime.