Herman Cain Has a Powerful Enemy in Iowa

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The harassment scandal highlights Cain's rift with Iowa's most dangerous conservative talker

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Herman Cain has messed with the wrong Iowan.

One strand of the multifaceted scandal unfolding around the Republican presidential candidate this week has been the charge that Cain treated female staffers of Des Moines-based radio host Steve Deace in a manner Deace found "awkward and inappropriate."

While Deace has refused to describe the interaction that prompted that characterization, he has also spent the week relentlessly pounding Cain on his nightly talk show -- and taking to task the conservatives who, at least at first, largely defended the former Godfather's Pizza CEO.

Deace says his major objections to Cain predated the scandal and are based on matters of substance. But there's no question that, for whatever reason, Cain has become the top target of Deace's fierce -- some would say demagogic -- ire.

And that could be a big problem for Cain. Because Deace isn't just any radio talker -- he can plausibly claim to be one of the most influential right-wing figures in the Hawkeye State. Four years ago, he played an instrumental role in Mitt Romney's loss, and Mike Huckabee's win, in the Iowa caucuses.

Now, Deace has his sights trained on Cain.

On Wednesday's show, Deace began by interviewing conservative filmmaker John Ziegler, who contended that in aiding Cain, the conservative media are really helping President Obama, who he said would beat Cain handily in a general election.

Deace played the skeptical straight man. He asked how the conservative media could prove Zielger wrong.

"Tell the truth about Herman Cain," Ziegler said. "Don't prop him up. Hold him to the same standard you would hold a liberal candidate to. We're not seeing that from the conservative media."

Deace jumped in: "You mean, for example, that if a Democrat said he wouldn't sign a pledge to defend marriage, that he had gave six different positions on abortion in two weeks, if he didn't know that China had nuclear weapons, things like that, that these same people would just trash this guy six ways from Sunday? Is that what you're saying?"

It was only the opening salvo in a two-hour show that frequently returned to the topic of Cain's many heresies against conservative doctrine. By the end of the show, Deace was declaring, "The fact this guy got this far knowing nothing, standing for nothing ... is more of an indictment against us than Mr. Cain.... We get the government we deserve, whether that's Barack Obama or the next Kool-Aid drinking cult of personality -- Herman Cain."

When Deace, whose last name rhymes with "base," decides a politician needs to be taken down, he doesn't hold back. As one of the promos for the show states: "Hunting RINOs into extinction -- you're listening to Steve Deace." (RINO stands for Republican In Name Only.)

Just ask Mitt Romney's 2008 crew. "Steve Deace every night on the air conducted a 3-hour campaign against Romney for Huckabee. He motivated a lot of people," recalled Doug Gross, one of Romney's top Iowa advisers at the time, who is neutral for 2012.

Deace, Gross said, was a "huge" thorn in the side of the Romney campaign. "If you take a look at Romney's results, you'll find he did well in Eastern Iowa and Western Iowa, but where WHO [Deace's station at the time] had the greatest reach, that's where Romney did the worst."

In fact, Romney won only one of the counties in WHO's broadcast area -- and that was by four votes.

A college dropout raised by a teenage mother, Deace, 38, became a hard-core evangelical Christian after an epiphany at a Promise Keepers rally in Kansas City in 2003. As he put it in an interview, "I ended up radically changed. I became a sort of Gen X version of Ned Flanders."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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