Republican candidates scramble for Cain's votes

WASHINGTON --  The scramble for Herman Cain’s votes began barely 20 minutes after he officially suspended his presidential campaign amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and the other Georgian in the race, on Saturday issued a statement praising Cain, noting their decade-long friendship and predicting, “He will continue to be a powerful voice in the conservative movement for years to come.”

Other contenders for the Republican nomination, now less than a month from the Iowa caucuses, also set out to reel in backers of the McDonough businessman’s quixotic campaign.

The latest polling numbers from Iowa suggested Gingrich has the best shot at claiming them. The closely watched Iowa poll, conducted by the Des Moines Register and released late Saturday, showed that of Cain’s 8 percent support, 3 percent listed Gingrich as a second choice. Four other candidates and “undecided” each garnered 1 percent.

The second-choice votes further established Gingrich’s position atop the Des Moines poll, which found Gingrich leading the GOP field with 25 percent support, ahead of Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 18 percent and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 16. A separate NBC News/Marist poll showed Gingrich beating Romney, 26 percent to 18 percent, among Republican caucus attendees in Iowa

The findings mirrored the seesaw nature of the race in recent weeks as Cain’s support declined amid the sexual misconduct allegations and his missteps on foreign policy, giving rise to Gingrich as the latest insurgent against Romney.

“Newt Gingrich, while not a traditional tea party candidate, has been able to craft a message that speaks to them,” said Andra Gillespie, Emory University political scientist. “And given his front-runner status, from a strategic standpoint it would make the most sense for Cain supporters to shift to Gingrich. … It would not really be strategic for them to go to second- and third-tier candidates like [Minnesota Rep.] Michele Bachmann and [former Pennsylvania Sen.] Rick Santorum.”

That did not stop other candidates from wooing disappointed Cain supporters, some of whom shed tears on Saturday as Cain announced at a rally in DeKalb County that he would not continue because of the toll the allegations of sexual harassment by former employees and a lengthy affair with a Dunwoody woman have taken on his family.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” Bachmann on Sunday said her campaign has been in contact with Cain’s.

“One thing that we've seen is that a lot of Herman Cain supporters have been calling our office, and they've been coming over to our side,” she said. “I think part of that is because people see that I'm the tea party candidate in the race. They saw Herman Cain as an outsider, and I think they see that my voice will be the one that would be most reflective of his.”

Paul, on the same program, noted that he is seen as one of the forebears of the tea party movement.

“There are a lot of people who call themselves tea party people who did like the independent-mindedness of Herman Cain,” Paul said. “I’m optimistic that we’ll pick up some votes from there.”

Santorum appeared on ABC’s “This Week” and said, “I think he made the right decision to leave for his family and for the country. It was clearly a distraction that was not going to go away. Again I feel bad for Herman, I really do, and for his family in particular, and I hope they can get well.”

Despite benefiting from Cain's developments, Gingrich, who spoke at a recent town hall meeting in New York sponsored by tea party supporters, said he knows his surge in the polls could disappear if his opponents stage a comeback. "I'm not going to say that any of my friends can't suddenly surprise us," he said.

Cain did not indicate Saturday if and when he would provide an endorsement, and a spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday. Of the remaining candidates, he has the most personal history with Gingrich, who appointed Cain to a tax reform commission in 1995. Last month the two staged a friendly Lincoln-Douglas style debate together in Texas.

They share Georgia roots, though by the time the Atlanta native Cain returned to the state in 2000 and became active in Georgia politics, Gingrich had left Congress and was living full-time in Virginia.

Gillespie said a Cain endorsement could be a mixed bag for any of the remaining candidates, especially if he hits the trail to support one of them. Cain has a singular ability to hype up a crowd, but any gaffes could become a distraction.

“If he starts to talk about substance and especially if he starts to say things that are incorrect that could be a problem,” she said. “But if he sticks to his talking points, I don’t think people dislike him.”

Reince Priebus, the Republican Party chairman, said Sunday that he was indifferent to Cain's departure and that it was "only natural" in the face of falling poll numbers and trouble raising money. Priebus spoke on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Some conservatives had never taken Mr. Cain, a former pizza-company executive with no government experience, seriously. George F. Will, the columnist, said on Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that Mr. Cain fell within a category he described derisively as “charlatans, entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial charlatans” and was ultimately most interested in selling his book.

The Associated Press and the New York Times contributed to this article.