Herman Cain's blunders have been blamed by his spokesman on fatigue,… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
For months, Herman Cain floated under the radar as other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination were poked, prodded and scrutinized by a voracious national media.
A businessman with no elective office experience, Cain could say anything he wanted — and did — because few were paying attention.
Then Cain unleashed his catchy 9-9-9 tax reform plan. He won a straw poll in Florida and vaulted into the top tier, tying or besting front-runner Mitt Romney in some polls.
That, paradoxically, is when Cain's trouble began.
His statements about abortion seemed contradictory. An electrified border fence: joke or no joke? He fumbled a softball question about negotiating with Al Qaeda. He mocked Uzbekistan, calling it "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan."
Cain's spokesman blamed the 65-year-old candidate's blunders on fatigue, the fast pace of the campaign and the media taking some answers "out of context." Now, amid hints that the Cain surge may be fragile, powerful Republican figures are questioning his ability to rise to the occasion, while his beleaguered staff is being urged to bring on more-seasoned political pros.
"You can't ad lib your way through a presidential campaign," said Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who ran Michele Bachmann's campaign until September and is not affiliated with any candidate. "If you're at the back of the pack, maybe you can do that, but when you're a front-runner, and people are judging you, it can be very detrimental."
Some candidates peak before they enter a race (Fred Thompson and Rudolph W. Giuliani in 2008). Some peak after, for a brief shining moment (Bachmann after the Ames Straw Poll in August; Howard Dean in 2004). It appears to some political observers that Cain's moment in the sun is fleeting.
"If you look at the polls," former George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove said on Fox News this week, "there's a hint that sometime between Oct. 6 and 10, Cain peaked and has begun to slide slightly since then."
Perhaps that is wishful thinking, Republican-establishment-style. In two polls released last week, Cain remained in first place. His chief of staff told CNN the campaign had raised more than $3 million this month.
Cain likes to say his staff motto is "Let Herman be Herman." But some of his blunders are inexplicable. No one expects Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, to be a foreign policy expert. But abortion? For any candidate — especially one who is a lay Baptist preacher and conservative talk show host — discussing it should be a no-brainer.
In multiple interviews, Cain said he was against abortion — "no exceptions." But when CNN's Piers Morgan pressed him about whether he would oppose abortion if his daughter or granddaughter were raped, he said, "It ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make." Subsequent explanations made little sense. His spokesman said his words had been taken out of context.
But to abortion foes, the word "choice" evokes the same response as nails dragging across a chalkboard.
"I was concerned, as were many pro-life Christians, when we heard Mr. Cain's remarks," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "We welcomed the clarifications and the citations from his record over the years — he's clearly pro-life. But it does heighten our watchfulness."
Likewise, howls ensued when Cain said, in the wake of the recent Israel-Hamas swap of more than 1,000 Palestinians for a captured Israeli soldier, that he could see himself trading all the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, presumably to Al Qaeda, for a single American hostage.
"I misspoke," Cain told CNN. "… You know things are moving so fast.... I simply would not do that."
Said Land: "He's walked that back and said he didn't mean it. I hope it's true."
Earlier, Cain said he was not familiar with Palestinians' insistence on their right of return to lands taken by Israel. And he said he would figure out his Afghanistan policy once he got into office.
Then there is the matter of the fence between Mexico and the United States.
On a swing through Tennessee on Oct. 14 and 15, Cain said the electrified fence would bear a sign in English and Spanish, facing Mexico: "It will kill you."
On Oct. 16, Cain told "Meet the Press" host David Gregory, "That's a joke. That's not a serious plan. I've also said America needs to get a sense of humor."
But the problem is, Cain has said numerous times that it wasn't a joke.
Back in March in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Cain vowed, "I'd make that sucker 20 feet high with electrified barbed wire on top, and on the U.S. side, I'd have a trench as wide as a football field … with alligators in it."