WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former pizza magnate Herman Cain’s bid for the White House was an unconventional long shot from the start, but behind the colorful Cain Train a dysfunctional team has always been on the verge of running off the tracks.
The slow-motion train wreck ground to a halt on Saturday when Cain announced that he would suspend his campaign.
The breaking point was an allegation by Atlanta businesswoman Ginger White this week that she had engaged in a 13-year affair with the candidate.
Cain’s presidential bid unraveled in public as women complained of sexual harassment, he forgot U.S. policy in Libya in a video interview and confused the language spoken in Cuba.
But there was also chaos behind the scene where his staff ran a free-wheeling show that seemed part book tour, part circus.
A former campaign official told Reuters that Cain was beset by scheduling mishaps, profligate spending on private jets and an entourage of handlers along for the ride.
“The people who Cain placed his full faith and confidence to counsel him are guilty of political malpractice,” the former official said. “Campaign and crisis management pros will be dissecting this catastrophe for decades.”
As the campaign staggered under the harassment allegations in November, Cain announced on a conference call that he was demoting chief of staff Mark Block but that decision was reversed within a few hours without explanation.
Campaign appearances were often badly planned: book-signings in Tennessee and a visit to a Texas dog-racing track rather than time in a key early voting state like Iowa, where Cain was absent for much of September and October.
The Cain team knew for 10 days that news website Politico was going to publish the first story on sexual harassment allegations against Cain, but did nothing to try to head off the media storm about to erupt.
No-one coached the candidate on the symbolic importance of filing paperwork in person for New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” primary election.
A visit to the office of secretary of state in Concord to sign official papers is a time-honored tradition in New Hampshire. The walls of the statehouse gift shop are thick with photos, buttons and other memorabilia from decades of winning, losing and long-forgotten presidential campaigns.
But instead of visiting, the Cain camp mailed in his paperwork, losing free publicity and a place in history.
The self-styled Cain Train was on a roll in early autumn. Support in national polls surged from about 4 percent at the start of September to 26 percent in late October, when Cain for a few weeks reached front-runner status.
Cain’s affability and impressive life story was a plus for potential voters, and his simple message of economic revival, built around the catchy “9-9-9” tax plan, caught on during a series of televised debates.
But the sexual harassment allegations sowed doubts in voters’ minds and exposed failings in his team.
At the center of much of the campaign confusion was chief of staff Block, an old Cain friend who became known as the “smoking guy” in a strange campaign commercial that became an Internet sensation.
Block appeared at the end of the ad, staring into the camera and drawing on a cigarette. To some viewers the clip seemed quirky and individualistic; to others, just weird.
Block, who was once banned from campaign work after allegations of election law violations in Wisconsin, worked in the past for Americans for Prosperity, and was a connection to the conservative heavyweight funders David and Charles Koch.
As Cain’s campaign stumbled into November, Cain tried unsuccessfully to demote Block.
The former Cain campaign official said Cain made the move to relieve Block of his day-to-day duties on November 13, on a Sunday night strategy call.
Cain twice told his staff on the call that Block would be moved from chief of staff to senior campaign strategist as he changed to a management model of three vice presidents.
But when a press release came out Monday morning to announce the changes, Block was listed as both “chief political strategist and chief of staff.”
Far from being demoted, Block kept his role and earned a fancier title overnight, in circumstances that are still unclear.
After the smoking ad briefly made Block well known in the political world, he asked his staff to inquire about securing him a live spot on NBC‘S comedy show “Saturday Night Live” where he could self-parody the ad, the former campaign official said.
Once Cain surged to the top of the polls in the early fall, his campaign began to burn through the $9.4 million third-quarter fund-raising haul that legitimized Cain as a contender for the nomination.
Cain’s camp rented a G4 private plane to accommodate the candidate’s entourage that included Block, spokesman J.D. Gordon, a videographer and two historians Cain was paying to document his campaign for a book, according to the former official.
Republican strategist Ron Christie, a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, said that Cain’s campaign was never built to last.
“In the end, he had neither the organization nor the discipline to mount a legitimate presidential bid,” Christie said. “It just reeked of ‘not ready for primetime.'”
Reporting by Sam Youngman, Writing by Ros Krasny, Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Walsh