Herman Cain is in the midst of "reassessing" whether to continue his 2012 run, but its legacy is already settled: His campaign will go down as one of the most hapless and bumbling operations in modern presidential politics, setting a new standard for how to turn damaging press coverage into something far worse.
The botched responses to allegations of marital infidelity, sexual impropriety and his own gaffes — not to mention the puzzling strategic decisions — have, in the eyes of many veteran strategists, reached record levels of ineptitude.
It's an operation that has repeatedly contradicted its own candidate, leveled baseless charges and put Cain in difficult political spots with little apparent forethought.
The chain of events following a woman's claim Monday that she had a 13-year affair with the Republican presidential hopeful provides the freshest evidence. Campaign manager Mark Block confirmed to ABC News Tuesday that Cain is "reassessing whether to stay in the race," while spokesman J.D. Gordon told ABC the opposite: that Cain is simply reassessing campaign strategy, such as "what states we visit, what interviews we do, how we allocate resources – things like that."
Later in the day, Block told ABC there's "no way he's dropping out" and that the reassessment was "not a reassessment of withdrawing" from the 2012 race.
That familiar Keystone Kops performance is a reflection of an organization staffed by few operatives with presidential experience, working for a political neophyte who's proven himself ill-equipped for a national campaign. The combination of a supremely self-assured candidate — speaking in the third person and convinced of his own ability to talk himself out of any jam — surrounded by a group of not-ready-for-prime-time aides making it up as they go along has resulted in a campaign meltdown for the ages.
Until the discrepancy over whether he was or was not considering quitting the race, the most recent example of self-inflicted wounds from Team Herman came in response to an Atlanta Fox affiliate's plans to run the story on Ginger White, the woman who claimed she had carried on a long-term affair with Cain.
After the television station indicated it was preparing to air the allegations, the campaign had a response teed up: The veteran attorney Cain retained earlier this month after being accused of sexual harassment would issue a statement to the station arguing that such a claim had no place in the public discourse and refuse to confirm or deny the charges.
Lin Wood, the attorney, did just that.
But that statement didn't appear on the affiliate's website until Monday evening — some time after Cain himself pre-empted his own attorney and contradicted his own prepared defense by appearing on CNN earlier in the day to flatly deny he had a sexual relationship with White.
When reached by the Associated Press, Wood seemed at a loss to explain his client's response: "If any candidate wants to publicly discuss his private sex life, that is his or her life."
The divergent messages from Wood and Cain, on top of a previous litany of unforced errors, amount to what many political professionals say is political malpractice on a grand scale.
Among the questions raised by the succession of bungled situations:
Why exactly was the presidential hopeful doing a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editorial board meeting less than two months before the Iowa caucuses?
It was in Milwaukee, of course, where Cain struggled to recall his talking point on Libya and served up what's bound to be one of the campaign's enduring YouTube moments.
Cain's unfamiliarity with major foreign policy events can only be partially attributed to his campaign. The underlying problem — that the candidate was even talking to the editors and reporters of a newspaper in a state that doesn't figure prominently in the nominating process — was the decision of campaign manager Mark Block.
As the paper's veteran political reporter Craig Gilbert recounted in a reconstruction of Cain's curious Wisconsin trip, Block called the Journal-Sentinel two days before the visit to offer up the candidate for an editorial board sit-down.
The strategy behind such an interview? Unknown. But Cain does reveal in the Gilbert piece why he was visiting the state in the first place.
"My chief of staff and my assistant, they wanted to go to a football game, and I said yes!" Cain told the paper, referring to Block, a Wisconsin native, and another aide.
So in addition to attending a fundraiser in Milwaukee, Cain trekked to Wisconsin to attend a tailgate party and Green Bay Packers football game.
Didn't anyone recognize the risk in antagonizing the New Hampshire Union Leader?
Cain's visit to the Journal-Sentinel actually may not have been the most ill-advised editorial board decision he made recently. In the aftermath of the Milwaukee meltdown, Cain's aides requested later that week that the candidate's Thursday visit to the Union Leader in Manchester not be televised by C-SPAN. Then the campaign said they could only spare 20 minutes, not the originally agreed-upon hour. When Union Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid said that wasn't sufficient, Cain didn't show up at what is both the largest paper in New Hampshire and a decades-long force in the Republican presidential primary there.
Gordon indicated to the paper that the campaign wanted to make things right, but McQuaid noted that the calendar was narrowing and suggested that the candidate probably ought not bother trying to reschedule.
"It's politics and campaigns," said McQuaid. "I don't think he's going anywhere from here at this point, anyway."
Unbowed, Cain's campaign reversed course a few days later and agreed to have the candidate sit down with the paper and let C-SPAN tape the interview.
No matter, though: the Union Leader endorsed Newt Gingrich on Sunday, before even meeting with Cain.
"It is a colossal mistake that makes one think that they are smoking something illegal as they make decisions," said longtime New Hampshire consultant Mike Dennehy of the Journal-Sentinel and Union Leader mini-sagas.
Why didn't the campaign act when first presented with evidence of sexual harassment allegations?
Cain's campaign, given 10 days to respond to the original sexual harassment allegations in October, largely ignored questions posed by POLITICO, which broke the story. Their first on-the-record response: that Cain vaguely recalled some incident and that he told aides to check with the counsel of the National Restaurant Association.
Then, after the story ran, the campaign initially denied that Cain had ever been accused of harassment. But that claim was undercut the following day when the candidate contradicted that denial by admitting he had in fact been the subject of a complaint by a former NRA employee that was settled with a cash pay-out.
After Cain and the campaign initially blamed the media for the story, Block went on Fox to pin the report on Curt Anderson, a strategist working for Rick Perry. But the following day, Block appeared on Fox to walk that charge back, saying he accepted Anderson's denial. Cain subsequently claimed the story was the product of a "Democratic machine."
After pointing to Anderson, Block found yet another culprit.
Appearing once again on Fox, the campaign operative said he had "confirmed" that Karen Kraushaar, one of the women accusing Cain of harassment, had a son who worked for POLITICO. But Kraushaar has no children. And the political reporter of the same last name, Josh Kraushaar, hasn't worked for POLITICO since 2010. And he's of no relation to the accuser.
Veteran GOP operatives said Cain's campaign was effectively feeding him to a wood-chipper.
"It's actually sad — watching a candidate as talented and capable as Herman Cain get so beat up because of incompetence and indecision within his campaign," said Republican consultant Chris LaCivita.
In the small world of the political strategists, Block is little known.
A former Wisconsin-based official with the conservative Americans for Prosperity, Block was mostly anonymous until October when he starred in an unusual Web video, talking up Cain and taking a drag on his Marlboro.
"Block should have been canned for his asinine video, which did nothing for his candidate — but was all about him," LaCivita said. "We have enough celebrity 'political strategists' on TV — the last thing Cain needs is one calling the shots in the midst of his mess."
The fact that Block and Gordon continue to make themselves part of the story — a cardinal sin for political operatives — has compounded the problems of their principal. Block not only occupied center stage with the video but, over the past month, has repeatedly injected himself into the campaign with his haphazard and walked-back accusations.
Gordon raised more questions than he answered about Cain's sexual harassment denials by going on Geraldo Rivera's show the night the original POLITICO story posted and repeatedly dodging direct questions about the women's claims.
"The base may be enthralled with the idea of an outsider, but the Cain campaign is making a pretty compelling case for the idea that experience actually matters," said GOP strategist Todd Harris. "The way you get through a 'he said, she said' crisis on a campaign is to make sure voters believe you more than they believe your accuser. That's awfully hard to do when the statements coming out of your own campaign keep turning out to be wrong."
In addition to the most memorable blunders, Cain's campaign also routinely commits head-scratchers. Like when Block told the Washington Post that they had sought taxpayer-funded Secret Service protection to handle the press corps at their events. Or when they released a media advisory listing the times of their coming bus tour in Ohio (another state with no significant role in the early primary calendar) in the central time zone.
Cain sympathizers have sought to intervene, publicly pleading with the former CEO to part ways with Block.
"Herman, you said you'd surround yourself with the best people and you've surrounded yourself with Class A failures," Erick Erickson wrote on RedState.com earlier this month, before the editorial board fiascoes. "I still believe you can win. But to do so, you must fire your staff and start over. It is the only way forward for you."
Yet even as the accumulation of problems has sent his poll numbers tumbling, Cain has stood by Block and the rest of his team.
The loyalty stems in part from a close relationship between the candidate and his manager, dating back to their work together on behalf of AFP.
"We ended up spending a lot of time together, much of it in a car, traveling from meeting to meeting," Cain writes of Block in his new autobiography.
As for Gordon, who came to the campaign after Cain officials saw him talking about defense issues during a Fox News hit, it's less clear why he remains — though it may just be the case of a campaign that would have a hard time now convincing any other consultant to handle its communications.
A former Navy public affairs officer, Gordon has made news before: While handling press relations on the Guantanamo Bay facility, he accused a female Miami Herald reporter of sexual harassment.
Ginger Gibson contributed to this report. POLITICO and the St. Petersburg Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.