ATLANTA — The brief but dramatic campaign of Herman Cain ended on Saturday, when the little-known businessman who captivated the Republican race said the relentless attention on accusations of his sexual misconduct had become too much to bear.
Both defiant and passionate, Cain again denied allegations of sexual harassment and an extramarital affair, while declaring, “I’m not going away.”
But, he said, after “a lot of prayer and soul searching I am suspending my presidential campaign because of the continued distraction, the continued hurt caused on me and my family.” Cain also cited difficulty in raising enough money to remain competitive.
Cain’s decision is the latest twist in a Republican primary contest that has been marked by a search for a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, the establishment favorite.
After a string of impressive debate performances, Cain assumed that role in late September. But amid mounting allegations and a series of gaffes, much of his support has shifted in recent weeks to former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who has joined Romney atop the polls.
The question now is where the rest of Cain’s backing goes. Asked in an interview in Iowa last week if he would pick up Cain’s supporters, Gingrich responded: “Oh, sure.”
The Gingrich campaign moved quickly to appeal to Cain supporters on Saturday, praising his ideas immediately after he announced the suspension of his campaign. Gingrich himself lauded Cain a short while later at a Staten Island event, saying that he “deserves credit for having the courage to talk about big ideas and focus on the economy.”
But there is also evidence that Romney could benefit from Cain’s departure. A Pew poll conducted before Thanksgiving showed that Cain supporters split evenly between the former Massachusetts governor and Gingrich when asked for their second choice.
Romney said during a campaign event in New Hampshire on Saturday that he hopes Cain backers “give us a good, careful look. . . . I hope, as they evaluate the various candidates, they will find I’m the leader the world needs.”
A spokeswoman for Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who enjoyed a brief moment atop the polls in the summer, said Cain’s campaign had been in touch with the congresswoman. “We have received numerous calls and e-mails from his supporters, and we are are happy to have them,” Alice Stewart said.
Cain gave no indication on Saturday who was his second choice for president, but he said he will endorse one of his former rivals “in the near future.”
An unlikely candidate
In a Republican nominating contest that has see-sawed from one frontrunner to another, Cain, 65, was perhaps the unlikeliest to rise to the top of the pack. A former pizza executive with no political experience, little campaign organization to speak of and a schedule tailored more to selling books than winning votes, Cain nevertheless captured the hearts of Republican voters with a clear message, confidently delivered.
“I’m upset. I feel like the other side won, their dirty tricks,” said Marelli Gardner, a health-care coordinator and tea party activist from Cummings, Ga., who drove 45 minutes and waited two hours to hear Cain speak on Saturday. She left before his remarks were over. “A lot of people had a lot of hope in Herman Cain.”
At his rally Saturday, Cain said, “I have made many mistakes in life, everybody has.” But he also offered his story as evidence of the nation’s strengths.
“I grew up in a world of segregated water fountains,” he said. “My father was a chauffeur and my mother was a maid. We showed that you didn’t have to have a degree from Harvard in order to run for president. We showed that you didn’t have to have a political pedigree. . . . I am proof that a common man could lead this nation.”
In a field of politicians and Washington insiders, Cain presented himself as the businessman outsider with “bold new ideas.” While Romney had a 59-point economic plan and a 160-page book to explain it, Cain said the nation’s ills could be fixed with three simple numbers — 9, 9 and 9.
Cain talked so incessantly about his “9-9-9” tax plan — which would have scrapped the current tax code and replaced it with a 9 percent tax on individuals, a 9 percent tax on businesses and a 9 percent sales tax — that it became both a punch line and a selling point.
On the campaign trail, Cain attracted large crowds who were drawn to his straightforward style, folksy sayings (“Awwww shucky ducky now!”) and affability. More than once, he delighted crowds by breaking into song. Released in the midst of his presidential run, his latest book — “This Is Herman Cain!” — became a bestseller.