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Can Herman Cain's campaign survive?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 31: Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain delivers remarks at The National Press Club October 31, 2011 in Washington, DC. Cain has denied accusations made in a report of sexual harassment while he was president of the National Restaurant Association. Cain is tied with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at the top of the Des Moines Register's recent survey of likely caucus-goers in Iowa.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 31: Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain delivers remarks at The National Press Club October 31, 2011 in Washington, DC. Cain has denied accusations made in a report of sexual harassment while he was president of the National Restaurant Association. Cain is tied with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at the top of the Des Moines Register's recent survey of likely caucus-goers in Iowa.
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 31: Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain delivers remarks at The National Press Club October 31, 2011 in Washington, DC. Cain has denied accusations made in a report of sexual harassment while he was president of the National Restaurant Association.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Herman Cain's presidential campaign has been on the rise for weeks, but all the talk of his "9-9-9" tax plan and his lead in the polls came to a grinding halt on Sunday evening when Politico reported that the Republican businessman was accused of sexual harassment by two women who worked for the organization he ran more than a decade ago.

Cain's long-shot campaign has already survived multiple gaffes, and the former Godfather's Pizza CEO has climbed in the polls in important states like Iowa, in spite of his lack of a strong, traditional campaign organization there. So can he survive one more, potentially explosive story?

Cain's front-runner status was on shaky ground to begin with - and further developments in this story could potentially sink his campaign. But if there are no more revelations about the nature of these allegations, Cain could emerge from this campaign detour unscathed -- it could even help him, some argue.

The bottom line is that it's unclear in which direction Cain's campaign will head until the story either evolves or fades away. As University of Virginia political professor Larry Sabato told Hotsheet, "It's hard to know more until we know more."

A test for the anti-establishment candidate

Cain has benefited so far in the GOP race from the fact that voters simply like him. A recent Gallup poll revealed that Republican voters consider Cain the most likeable candidate -- he has the highest percentage of favorable opinions among Republicans (74 percent) and the lowest percentage of unfavorable opinions (16 percent).

That's helped in Iowa -- which will hold the nation's first presidential caucus on Jan. 3 -- where Cain has relied on committed volunteers in lieu of paid staff to keep his campaign alive.

Central to Cain's appeal is his image as an outside-the-Beltway, anti-establishment candidate. He's used his "outsider" status to fend off scrutiny of recent comments regarding abortion and negotiating with terrorists, which appeared to be out of sync with Republican voters.

However, this latest controversy surrounds Cain's tenure as CEO of the National Restaurant Association -- and in this economy, his business leadership is another key part of his appeal.

"Voters in general will be concerned about just his general leadership," Bob Vander Plaats, president of the influential conservative Iowa group The Family Leader, told Hotsheet.

While "the jury's still out" on the legitimacy of the story, Vander Plaats said he was struck by part of Cain's response today, when Cain was asked about the reported settlement between the National Restaurant Association and the two women who accused him of sexual harassment. Cain said: "If the Restaurant Association did a settlement, I am not - I wasn't even aware of it and I hope it wasn't for much, because nothing happened."

"If you're the CEO, you should know" whether there was a settlement, Vander Plaats said.

Lingering questions about the charges, combined with Cain's past missteps, could weigh on voters' minds, Vander Plaats added. "What he doesn't want to become the narrative is that there's a consistency of unanswered questions about Herman Cain," he said.

Still, if Cain manages to address the story sufficiently in the coming days and get his campaign back on message, voters could forgive him, Vander Plaats said. Voters understand "it comes with the territory when you jump into the deep end of the pool," he said.

A conservative rallying point

So far, it's clear Cain is attempting to stay on message -- he attended both of his public speaking engagements in Washington on Monday -- while defending his unique, outsider campaign style.

"By the way folks - yes, I am an unconventional candidate, and yes, I do have a sense of humor, and some people have a problem with that," Cain said Monday after speaking at the American Enterprise Institute. "But to quote my chief of staff and all the people around this county, let Herman be Herman, and Herman is gonna stay Herman."

If no more there are no more negative developments out of the sexual harassment story, it could even work to bolster his image as a defiant, conservative leader, Sabato argues.

"If this fades in a day or two because there's no new information, it will be chalked up to liberal media bias by Republicans who vote," he said. Those voters, he added, "simply assume that [Politico is] part of the liberal, Beltway establishment media."

Cain will appear as a candidate "who's threatening the establishment so much the establishment is trying to destroy him," he said.

That storyline may only appeal to the staunchest conservatives -- but they're the ones who vote in the primaries, Sabato pointed out. Only about 17 percent of Republicans typically vote in the primaries and caucuses when there's a contest for the nomination, he said.

There's evidence this storyline is already coming to bear. "It's outrageous the way liberals treat a black conservative," conservative commentator Ann Coulter told Fox News today. "This is another high-tech lynching."

Holding onto Iowa

One of the most pressing questions will be how the allegations impact Cain's standing in Iowa. Saturday's Des Moines Register poll put Cain just one point ahead of Mitt Romney, with the candidates receiving 23 percent and 23 percent respectively.

More critically, three quarters of the poll respondents said they could change their mind before January 3.

"We know that Ron Paul supporters aren't going anywhere," Vander Plaats said. "You know there's a certain position with Romney, because Romney's numbers don't move... That means for the rest of the field, including Herman Cain, it's completely up for grabs."

Vander Plaats said Cain's "biggest challenge is that his organization needs to catch up with is poll numbers" in Iowa. "A caucus is all based on organization -- whether can you get the people to caucus for you on a cold, blizzard [on] January 3."

If voters sway from Cain, they could choose to support Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Sen. Rick Santorum, Vander Plaats said -- three names he hears often mentioned in Iowa.

As for Cain's opponents, all they can do with the sexual harassment story is "leave it alone," Sabato says. If it's revealed that one of the other campaigns tipped off Politico to the story, "the candidate who will suffer won't be Herman Cain," he said.