WASHINGTON — 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 three women, implying that the accusations surfaced because he is black. Hours after the claims were reported, Cain's supporters branded his trouble a "high-tech lynching." That's the term coined 20 years ago by another black conservative, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, after his confirmation hearings for the court were rocked by allegations 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."
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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.First Read: Cain has a last word on harassment case
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 Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma; and current 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.Video: Hunstman on Cain’s controversy (on this page)
"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 an interview Tuesday.
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.Story: 2012 race likely to be tough, maybe brutal
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 African-American they really like to support because he is saying the same things they believe," Black said.
If Cain can seriously challenge for the GOP nomination, he would be moving onto rarefied turf.
With the notable exception of a former Ohio secretary of state, Ken Blackwell, few African-American conservatives have won statewide elections. Though few polls show that Americans are willing to admit they're less likely to vote for a black candidate for president, an Associated Press-Yahoo-Stanford University poll in 2008 showed that almost half of Americans have at least some anti-African American sentiments.
For example, activist and diplomat Alan Keyes polled highly in his attempts to gain the GOP nomination in 1996 and 2000, but did not come close to toppling nominees Bob Dole and George W. Bush, respectively.
So will Cain's popularity hold?
"All we have to look at now are the polls," Williams said. "And he's still winning."
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