WASHINGTON (AP) — Herman Cain's rise as a presidential contender was supposed to prove that race didn't matter in the Republican Party. Cain is fast making it the only thing that does.
The black conservative is trying to navigate around allegations that he sexually harassed at least four women, implying that the accusations surfaced because he is black. Hours after the claims were reported, Cain's supporters branded his trouble “high-tech lynching.” That's the term coined 20 years ago by another black conservative, Clarence Thomas, after his confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice were rocked by allegations also of sexual harassment.
Cain's supporters have pinned blame on a white GOP presidential rival, on liberals afraid of a “strong black conservative” and on mainstream media interested in “guilty until proven innocent.” But, by playing the race card with the Thomas precedent, his backers belied the “post-racial” America that President Barack Obama was said to have brought about in the United States — and that they, too, promote.
It's not a post-racial world, “it's a partisan world,” said Merle Black, an Emory University political science professor and author of The Rise of Southern Republicans.
Cain's success in Republican straw polls was considered by many, especially black conservatives, proof that America was finally ready to consider candidates according to ideas, not race. Obama was elected the nation's first black president in 2008 behind a strong vote from minorities, liberals and independents. Few of them are affiliated with the GOP, the party of Abraham Lincoln that lost favor with minority voters behind its 1960s “Southern strategy” of wooing white voters who were unhappy over civil rights legislation.
The GOP is eyeing blacks with new appeal, as evidenced by the rise of conservatives such as Cain; two former secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice; former U.S. Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma; and current U.S. Reps. Allen West of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina.
Blacks, in turn, are intrigued by conservative positions on gun rights, abortion and gay marriage, as well as disdain for tax increases. Conservatives and the current force in Republican politics, the tea party supporters, say this shows there is no bigotry on their end of the political spectrum.
“It's a new world,” said Republican political operative Warren Tompkins of South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired and where Republicans voted against a son of legendary Sen. Strom Thurmond in a GOP primary and sent Scott to Congress. “It's not about the package, it's about the message.”
But that doesn't mean that talking about race for political advantage is passé. Conservatives immediately turned the narrative that way once the Cain allegations became public. “Just like they did to Clarence Thomas, they are engaging in a ‘high-tech lynching’ by smearing Herman Cain's reputation and character,” Jordan Gehrke of AmericansforHermanCain.com wrote in a fundraising appeal.
Not everyone on the Republican side appreciates the tactic.
“I think we need to get past the language of race on both sides,” Rice, who succeeded Powell as President George W. Bush's secretary of state, told Sean Hannity of Fox News in a recent interview.
Black conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who worked for Thomas when he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said some Republicans are put off by Cain's claims of racism because they hate it when they are accused of being racist.
“Why is the first response from some conservatives that this must have to do with Cain's race? That makes them guilty of the same race-baiting we accuse Democrats of,” Williams said.
Before his current troubles, Cain did not shy away from using race as a talking point, much to the consternation of liberal and independent blacks. He said blacks have been “brainwashed” into voting for Democrats in large numbers and he eschewed using the term “African American,” preferring to call himself an “American black conservative.” He maligned Obama's mixed-race identity, saying the president “has never been part of the black experience in America” and that Democrats are “doubly scared that a real black man might run against Barack Obama.”
“I don't believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way,” Cain told CNN in October.
But, then again, Cain isn't worried about what the majority of the black or other minority voters think of him yet, because there are few to be found in the Republican primaries he needs to win to be considered a legitimate national candidate. Cain must survive a grueling start to the GOP primary season that begins in Iowa and New Hampshire — states with marginal black populations — before heading south into South Carolina and Florida and then west to Nevada.
In denying the sex harassment allegations, Cain's race talk became a defensive shield. He told Fox he thought his race influenced the decision to take the allegations public.
“I believe the answer is yes but we do not have any evidence to support it,” he said.
Cain also used race as a cover while lashing out at nameless foes. “I'm a black conservative and it is causing their heads to explode,” Cain told Hannity days after accusing GOP rival Gov. Rick Perry of Texas of leaking the sex harassment claims. Perry denies the charge.
If Cain survives his current predicament, the color of his skin will be negligible in the minds of Republicans, said Black, the political science professor.
“He's the type of Africa American they really like to support because he is saying the same things they believe,” Black said.
Photo: Herman Cain