What if Herman Cain Drops Out? Bad for Romney, Good for Gingrich

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As the scandal-tarred Republican candidate ponders his future, a look at the implications for the remainder of the GOP presidential field

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On a conference call Tuesday morning, Herman Cain told campaign staffers he's "reassessing" his candidacy in the wake of the latest allegation of sexual misbehavior against him.

Cain said he would stick to his schedule, including a speech at Michigan's Hillsdale College scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight. "We're going to continue until we complete our assessment over the next several days," he said, according to National Review's Robert Costa, who was on the call.

"But if a decision is made different than to plow ahead, you all will be the first to know," Cain added. 

Thus begins the deathwatch stage of the former pizza CEO's twisting presidential campaign saga. The vultures have been circling Cain for the last several weeks as the scandal has played out; Cain's blunders have only accelerated the slide.

Who stands to benefit if Cain does drop out? What's clearest is who doesn't: Mitt Romney.

As a flawed and unloved front-runner, Romney's best shot has always been against a fragmented field of subpar challengers. From Cain to Rick Santorum to Ron Paul, the more secondary candidates carve up the pie of voters who see Romney as unacceptable, the fewer votes he needs to achieve a plurality win in each successive primary. 

The revolving-door nature of the race so far, with successive challengers peaking and then fading, has been Romney's dream scenario: Even as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Cain have lost ground, they've each retained their hold on a small corps of followers, draining more votes from the anti-Romney pool.

As the currently surging Romney alternative, Newt Gingrich seems best poised to win over the votes freed up by a Cain withdrawal, though it's not a clear-cut transfer. The Cain fans who identify with the Tea Party might go to Michele Bachmann, while his evangelical supporters could flee to either Bachmann or Rick Santorum. Rick Perry looks like a plausible substitute on paper, but it's hard to overstate how completely GOP voters have written him off after his many problematic performances in debates and at other venues.

Though Gingrich is far more fluent than Cain on the details of policy, the two share a stylistic appeal: an air of authenticity, as well as a certain joie de vivre. Gingrich always seems like he's having fun and believes what he's saying. (And Gingrich's personal baggage -- garden-variety adultery and lack of marital commitment -- looks downright tame next to what Cain's been accused of.) And with his credentials as the architect of the 1994 Republican revolution and the GOP's scholar-in-residence, Gingrich has a plausible electability pitch.

Steve Deace, a Des Moines-based syndicated radio host, said whether or not Cain decides to soldier on, his time is up.

"Anytime you're not sure if that's the job I should take -- it's not. If you're not sure if that's the woman I should marry -- it's not. Any candidate who openly talks about whether they should be in the race at this stage, no, they shouldn't," he told The Atlantic.

But the successive candidate boomlets have proved that a large number of voters are determined to choose a nominee other than Romney. "Romney's only strategy is to be the John McCain of 2008 -- the last man standing," Deace said. "The fewer alternatives to Romney, the higher likelihood of galvanizing the anti-Romney sentiment, which is the majority of the Republican electorate."

Image credit: Getty Images/Mandel Ngan
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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