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Allegations Don't Hinder Cain's Tea Party Support


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

More than a week after presidential candidate Herman Cain was confronted with sexual harassment accusations, he appears to be holding on to his base of support. Most polls show him still leading the other Republican candidates.

Much of Cain's support comes from conservative Tea Party members who like his straight talk and his 9-9-9 tax plan. To see what impact the sexual harassment allegations may be having, NPR's Greg Allen checked in last night with some of Cain's Tea Party supporters in Florida.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Herman Cain's rise to the top of the polls, really began nearly two months here in Florida with the state Republican Party's straw poll.

HERMAN CAIN: Herman Cain in 2012.

ALLEN: Cain beat former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and the other Republican candidates to win the straw poll at the Orlando Convention Center. After the vote, Tea Party activist Todd Catella was in the convention center lobby, leading an impromptu pep rally for Cain.

TODD CATELLA: Herman Cain (unintelligible). How do you feel about that, Florida?


ALLEN: Cain, a former businessman and radio talk show host, has run an unconventional campaign, with little organization or money, but a clear message and strong grassroots support.

Since a series of women have come forward with sexual harassment allegations, his campaign says fundraising has actually improved. Cain's campaign said, yesterday, it had raised $9 million since October 1st, more than double the amount he raised in the previous nine months. Catella says, among the Tea Party supporters he knows, Cain's support remains strong.

CATELLA: He is a person of character. He is a person of integrity. And if there is any opportunity for the media to sensationalize something that is not what it really is, they'll take advantage of that to their best ability.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's great to see so many people tonight. We have a very busy schedule. So we want to get down to it.

ALLEN: The South Florida 9-12 group in Palm Beach County is home to many Cain supporters. At the group's monthly meeting last night, Fred Scheibl said he supported Texas Governor Rick Perry until Cain won him over at the Florida straw poll. When I ask Scheibl how seriously he takes the sexual harassment allegations, he said, not very.

FRED SCHEIBL: Sexual harassment is a fairly new thing in terms of a club to wield against public figures. You know, I'm not minimizing what it means to someone who has been, indeed, sexually harassed. But it seems to me that if it happened to me, I would not wait 14 years to come forward.

ALLEN: Polls released this week in Florida show Cain still leading Romney and the other Republican candidates. But Peter Brown, who directs the Quinnipiac University poll, says voter responses to other questions suggest the sexual harassment allegations may be having an impact.

PETER BROWN: Voters see him, compared to Mitt Romney, as less experienced. They're less comfortable with the idea of him in the Oval Office, compared to Romney. And they see him as less trustworthy and honest than Romney.

ALLEN: Those responses, Brown says, are most pronounced among Democrats and Independents. But even among his Tea Party supporters, the allegations - and how Cain has responded to them - is getting close scrutiny. Betty Ann Starkey, a South Florida 9-12 member says she loves Herman Cain. He's a credible person, she says, but the jury's still out.

BETTY ANN STARKEY: People are concerned. And just as, you know, people have said that, oh, one of the other presidential candidates said that it was disturbing. Well, yes, it is disturbing. But that doesn't mean that we don't believe Herman Cain.

ALLEN: Many here say they were drawn to Cain because of his integrity - their sense that he's not like other politicians. But one of his supporters, Marianne Polulack, says she's been surprised by the allegations and by Cain's initial response, in which he first denied knowing about accusations that he later acknowledged.

MARIANNE POLULACK: I hope that he's telling the truth. I would tend to believe he is telling the truth. But I'm watching.

ALLEN: Cain supporters here in Florida say they're mobilizing phone banks and other efforts to get the word out on their candidate. And Cain will be back here next week for a rally and fundraiser in West Palm Beach.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.