Florida launched Herman Cain into the top tier of presidential candidates six weeks ago by overwhelmingly backing him in a high profile mock GOP primary election, and it was one of the first states where the Georgia businessman put together a serious campaign operation.
But as sexual harassment accusations swirl around the former CEO, some of his highest profile Florida supporters now find themselves straddling a fine line — standing by him even as they sound skittish about fully embracing him or weighing in on the allegations.
"I'm still with the campaign. … Obviously he's got some challenges he's working through right now,'' said former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, one of Cain's Florida chairmen, repeatedly declining to say whether he remains fully committed to Cain. "I've made my comments," he said.
Tampa businesswoman Kathleen Shanahan, another statewide campaign leader and former chief of staff to Gov. Jeb Bush, said she is unaware of any Florida supporter dropping off the campaign team. But she declined to comment on the harassment allegations.
"It's not my job to address those allegations,'' Shanahan said. "I'm focused on building an operational team for Florida. From what we know, support stands firm."
It's a precarious moment for Cain, who soared to the top of the presidential pack before he had much campaign infrastructure to capitalize on the momentum. Now he has two women on the record accusing him of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior and two other unnamed women who filed complaints against him when he led the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s.
From grass roots activists to elected officials leading the Cain campaign in Florida, most supporters say they have yet to see enough solid evidence to soften their support.
"Naturally it gives me pause, and I pay attention to sexual harassment having been sexually harassed myself and being in a male-dominated field,'' said state Sen. Ronda Storms, a Cain supporter from Valrico.
"This kind of stuff happens. It happens all the time, but you have an affirmative obligation to come forward at the time it happens,'' Storms said, referring to Sharon Bialek, a woman who held a news conference earlier this week to say Cain tried to fondle her in 1997. "You don't get to come forward 15 years or 14 years later and say this happened."
Bialek on Tuesday was the first woman to come forward publicly with such an allegation. After she did, a previously unidentified woman who filed a complaint against Cain more than a decade ago revealed her identity — civil servant Karen Kraushaar. The Associated Press reported that Kraushaar in her next job at the Immigration and Naturalization Service filed a complaint, later dropped, that accused supervisors of unfairly denying her request to work from home after a car accident and circulating a sexually oriented email.
"Based on what's in the public domain so far … it would be unfortunate for these (accusations) to be something that would remove him from the race. … I'm hoping the press will really drill down into the backgrounds and motivations of the two accusers," said state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, a top Cain supporter in Florida.
Several other Cain allies defended him with qualifications, acknowledging that the controversy could turn off potential supporters and that it could still escalate.
"I'm obviously not happy with any side issues like this that come up in a campaign, but based on what I know now, I continue to support him and am very honored to support him,'' said Tampa attorney Steve Burton, a leader in Cain's Florida fundraising team.
Former state Sen. Carey Baker of Eustis, another of Cain's Florida campaign chairmen, said he sees no reason not to believe what Cain has said, but he wondered about the impact on potential Cain supporters. "The Cain supporters are going hold strong I think," Baker said. "My concern is that, just as in any campaign, when you're off message and not able to talk about the things you want to talk about, that's never good."
Orlando attorney Ben Newman, part of Cain's Florida fundraising team, said he hoped the controversy does not dampen Cain's growth potential in Florida.
"People who consider themselves to be principled conservatives like a lot of things about Herman Cain," Newman said. "The question remains whether this gives them a level of discomfort that they won't be able to pull a lever for him."
So far, there's little evidence that Cain has been seriously damaged by the allegations. His campaign reports strong fundraising in the midst of the uproar, and recent polls show him at the top of the field.
The average of recent national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com has Cain leading former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by about 2 percentage points, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a distant third place. A Nov. 8 Rasmussen Reports auto-dial poll of likely Florida Republican voters found Cain with 30 percent support, Romney with 24 percent, Gingrich with 19 percent and no one else in double digits.
"Today I've gotten something like 20-plus phone calls from people wanting to help the campaign," said Jacksonville developer Toney Sleiman said Tuesday, brushing off the allegations against Cain. "I wasn't there, I wasn't in the room. All I know is I believe what he's saying."
Palm Beach City Commissioner Bill Diamond, helping host a Nov. 16 fundraiser for Cain at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, said the negative publicity has galvanized many supporters for Cain and ultimately could make him a stronger candidate.
"What proves the mettle of a candidate is not when things are going well but when things are tough,'' Diamond said. "If he can get over this, he has a very good chance of getting the nomination and becoming the president."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.