It’s dusk on Thursday, November 3, and the bar at the Embassy Suites in downtown Washington is hopping. Traveling salesmen, their collars loose, order Bud Light. But in the middling Italian restaurant near the lobby, the dining room is empty, save for Mark Block and Linda Hansen, Herman Cain’s senior political advisers.
At a back table, Block and Hansen are drinking bad coffee. Their iPhones are charging in the corner. A waitress brings over menus. But the pair isn’t hungry. All they want is a shot of caffeine — and to stop talking about Politico.
“This is the last conversation I’m going to have about it,” Block says.
Since Sunday, Cain’s campaign has been rocked by the publication’s report on decade-old sexual harassment settlements. In the article and subsequent dispatches, anonymous sources have accused Cain of making unwanted advances toward female employees.
Cain has repeatedly denied the allegations and blasted Politico for publishing the story. Block and Hansen, Cain’s chief surrogates, have done the same. “This has been a digital witch hunt,” Block says, shaking his head.
After a weeklong battle, both are ready to change the subject.
Block, for his part, tells me he would love to keep fighting with Politico over its sourcing. But as the Iowa caucuses and primaries approach, it’s necessary to switch gears. “Next! We’re finished,” he says. “We’re done with the Politico article.” A minute later, he shows me a snapshot of the White House on his phone: “Another day, another step closer.”
Shifting the conversation won’t be easy. Lawyers for the National Restaurant Association, which made the confidential settlements, may allow Cain’s accusers to issue statements on the incidents. Cain-related rumors and innuendo are constant.
Block knows that he can’t wish away the chatter. Things may sour before they improve, should more claims, anonymous or otherwise, emerge. But he and Hansen tell me they’ll do their best, “starting now,” to take charge and, as much as possible, snuff out a controversy that has rattled the race.
The first step: message discipline. “Washington’s rules suck, and they suck for America,” Block says. “If you guys, the media, don’t like that we’re moving on, well, too bad. This is an unconventional campaign.”
Hansen agrees. “Journalists and everyone involved can learn from this past week,” she says. “Everyone has made mistakes. The media pursued sensationalism instead of looking at the facts and reporting on the major issues. They ran after false allegations.”
“America is better than this,” she says. “People want us to raise the bar. I know that we can.”
Hansen pauses. “We’re also still having fun,” she chuckles.
Block laughs, too. “Maybe we’re a little odd to be having fun after all of this, but we are.”
Not that the story has hurt, Block says. Since the Politico story was published, the campaign has raised more than $1 million. Thousands of Republicans have signed up to volunteer.
And Cain has remained atop the polls. “If this story had any legs or truth to it, then why didn’t we drop in Rasmussen’s latest poll? Our bubble has not burst like Bachmann or Perry,” Block says. “Instead, people in America are sick of this [gossip].”
Block acknowledges that at certain points, he has struggled to manage the story.
Instead of dismissing the allegations on Sunday with a terse statement, Block initially blamed Perry’s presidential campaign for leaking the story. “The actions of the Perry campaign are despicable,” he said in an interview with Fox News.
Perry’s consultants promptly denied their involvement. Block, in a Thursday interview with Fox News, distanced himself from the accusation, noting that he is still collecting “all the facts.”
As of Thursday night, Block says, the back and forth is “finished.” No more finger-pointing, no more musing about potential political sabatoge. The Perry–Cain squabbles? “They’re over.”
“Look, we handled this brilliantly and not so brilliantly,” Block says. “If we had to do it all over again, we would have come out on Monday and said this stuff is baseless, that there are no facts in the article and the Politico never spoke with the women, so end of story, let’s move on. We wouldn’t have let it turn into this kind of feeding frenzy, spinning our wheels.”
“For future reference, to campaigns that study this unconventional campaign, remember the lesson: Respond on Day One, don’t let it spin for a couple days,” he adds. “This is a cesspool. Even if you don’t want to swim, you have to swim once you’re in the water.”
Block and Hansen, of course, are realistic; they aren’t expecting much to improve in terms of media coverage, or for the press to follow their lead.
But maybe, they say, their competitors will respect their strategy.
After this week, “I truly hope the other campaigns follow Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, and if they have opposition research — which we don’t — to shelve it,” Block says.
“But it’s a blood sport these days,” he says as he finishes his coffee.
At that, Block’s iPhone flickers. Another stream of questions about the allegations crowds his inbox. He thumbs the screen. He says nothing. He has “moved on.”
Inside the Beltway, it’s only starting.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.