Herman Cain addresses an event Wednesday in Virginia. He didn't answer reporters' questions about harassment allegations.
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Herman Cain addresses an event Wednesday in Virginia. He didn't answer reporters' questions about harassment allegations.

Story highlights

David Gergen says Herman Cain has about 48 hours to get control of this controversy

Conservatives are dismayed at Cain's inept handling of the story, Gergen writes

Cain might be embarrassed, he says, but must show public he's open and fair

Gergen: The public is entitled to straight answers from a potential president

David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) —  

Herman Cain may very well bounce back and remain a popular contender for the GOP presidential nomination, but the normal rules of politics would say that he has about 48 hours to get his campaign under control.

As he struggles with the allegations swirling around him, it is worth remembering that so far, there is no hard evidence that he has done anything wrong. It is also worth recalling that in sexual harassment cases, perceptions of men and women can differ and lines can be blurry. That was especially true in the 1990s when the alleged events took place. He deserves the benefit of the doubt until we know more.

His fortunes have been bolstered as well by the way conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter have rushed to his defense. Limbaugh has sparked a familiar cry among tea partiers about “liberal media witch hunts.” On Wednesday, Politico – the news organization that broke the story – reported that voters in Iowa aren’t paying much attention: Cain still rides high there.

But no one, least of all the Cain forces, should believe he is getting this behind him. Far from it. The explosive way that a Washington lawyer has jumped into the middle of this episode, as he did Tuesday night when he called in to Anderson Cooper’s CNN show, is throwing fat into the fire.

David Gergen
Jake Herrle/CNN
David Gergen

Joel P. Bennett, asserting he represents a woman who he says complained about Cain harassing her at the National Restaurant Association, told Cooper that his client wants to get her side of the story out. She is offended by Cain’s proclamations that he was falsely accused and thinks he is lying.

At the moment, she has promised Bennett a copy of her original settlement with the restaurant association. Bennett probably will ask the association to release her from her confidentiality agreement so she can talk openly – although she is reportedly still considering this request and could decide not to pursue a release. Even if she does try for a release and the restaurant group refuses, it seems probable that the contents of the settlement will find their way into the media. Leaks happen.

And at least one other accuser might be waiting in the wings: The New York Times reported Wednesday that the National Restaurant Association gave a second woman a full year’s salary – $35,000 – as severance after she complained that Cain had behaved inappropriately toward her. A full year? That’s a lot of money and suggests – along with the Times’ reporting of “heavy drinking” at the event in question – that she may have a story to tell, too.

GOP operative says he witnesses bad behavior by Cain

Once we see a real, live woman step forward and accuse a major presidential candidate of sexual harassment and lying, it will almost certainly become a circus with Cain smack in the middle of it. It may become unfair – but it also can be politically lethal. Clarence Thomas survived because he was smart, tough and ready to take on his accusers. Cain so far has shown none of that.

Moreover, the sexual harassment story is only one of the possible scandals brewing around Cain. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported this week that a private corporation, set up by Cain’s chief of staff, has given the Cain campaign some $40,000 in goods and services. The report has been overshadowed, but it won’t go away: If that happened, those gifts could be violations of the law. The longer the sexual harassment controversy continues, the more the press is likely to dig in elsewhere.

So far, the greatest source of concern among some conservatives is how inept Cain and his team have been in responding. Politico gave them 10 days to prepare before going public on the restaurant association allegations, and yet Cain still didn’t have his facts and story straight. For political pros, two days of conflicting accounts were painful to watch.

All of which is to say that Cain is now under enormous time pressure to get his campaign under control. He needs to put an end to the sex controversy and do it fast. If he permits this fire to rage through the weekend and into next week, he could well be toast.

What should he do? It may seem a hard call, but it isn’t really. He should announce that he would be fine with the restaurant association releasing the accuser from her confidentiality agreement, invite her to sit down with him and talk it through, and then let each of them make their case to the public. He may have to suffer some embarrassment, but he has to show the country he is strong, open, fair and ready to lead.

Cain may think that is asking too much of him, that the media is prying too deeply and he is being railroaded. Personally, I have some sympathy for that perspective: Too often the media pokes and sensationalizes too much, especially into private life. But he is asking people to entrust him with the most powerful office on Earth. Before we make that choice, is it not fair to voters to get straight answers from a candidate about who he is and how he has acted in his professional life?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.