WASHINGTON — Rick Perry and Herman Cain have chosen far different weapons in their race to recover first and best from the crises that have rocked their presidential campaigns. Humor is Perry's choice. For Cain, defiance.
The assignment for both men: Fit the response to the predicament, with no margin for error.
Perry rushed to the talk circuit in a bid to persuade Republican voters not to take his forgetful Wednesday night debate "oops" so seriously.
"I don't know what you're talking about -- I think things went well," the Texas governor joked the next evening on David Letterman's "Late Show." ''I wanted to help take the heat off my buddy Herman Cain."
He certainly did, at least for a day, with the stunning 54-second brain freeze in which Perry tried and failed to recall a third Cabinet agency he would abolish.
Cain, a week-and-a-half into denying at least four sexual harassment accusations, finally was able to talk about something else. Facing serious allegations, he hasn't been laughing about any of it — with the brief exception of his reaction Thursday to a question about Anita Hill, who had accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during Thomas' confirmation hearing.
"Is she going to endorse me?" Cain replies on camera, bursting out laughing.
By Friday, he was back to explaining himself.
"He said it in a humorous way, I gave back a humorous response," Cain said on Fred Dicker's radio show in Albany, N.Y. "It was no way intended to be an insult to Anita Hill or anybody else."
Cain, the former CEO of Godfathers Pizza, has opted for defiance, firmly denying all allegations as pushes his insurgent campaign toward the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
"Over the last couple of weeks, I've been through hell," Cain told his supporters in Kalamazoo, Mich. "But here's the good news: It didn't kill me or slow me down one bit."
And what is former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's management technique amid the problems of his rivals? Raise his profile in Iowa, stay on message — and let advocates in Congress and elsewhere make an argument that particularly resonates now.
"He won't embarrass you," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a key Romney supporter, tells GOP voters still on the fence.
Other candidates are trying to make a similar point.
"We can't have any surprises with our candidate," Rep. Michele Bachmann says, in a Web ad released by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's new political action committee. As she speaks, an image of Cain shatters.
Crisis management is a distinct presidential fitness test, watched intently by influential politicos looking to support a campaign that might succeed. It can be a key indicator of who's best suited to compete for the voters' trust and enthusiasm in a perpetual news cycle against the best strategists and communicators around. And it offers a hint of how the hopefuls might, as president, make snap judgments on sober matters in the White House.
"The crisis creates, really, a stage," said Daniel Diermeier, a professor and expert on reputation management at Northwestern University. "All eyes are on the leader, and how they conduct themselves leaves a very long and profound impression on the audience."
Perry's stumble was hard to watch, an awkward 54 seconds that he has since noted felt like hours.
"The third agency of government I would do away with — the Education, the Commerce. And let's see. I can't. The third one, I can't," Perry said. "Oops."
The response in cyberspace was swift and brutal, many saying the slow-motion flub suggests Perry isn't, after all, ready for national politics.
The candidate made a beeline for the press room to own up and vow to press on: "I'm glad I had my boots on because I really stepped in it tonight."
Post-gaffe, Perry has labored to show he's in on the joke and climbing the presidential campaign learning curve.
"Write us to let us know what federal agency you would most like to forget," the Perry team invited supporters, directing them to a website addressed "forgetmenot."
The humor tactic is risky, though, because the jokes only change the subject from more weighty underlying concerns.
"The basic question is about competence. The humor doesn't address it," Diermeier said. "It's still out there."
As the media spotlight turned to Perry, Cain pressed on toward Iowa, where private polling showed the women's allegations were taking a bite out of his once-solid lead there. The accusations against Cain by four women — two of whom received financial settlements from the National Restaurant Association where those two worked and Cain was the president — so far are a question of his word against theirs. They are wavering on whether to have a news conference, according to the lawyer for Karen Kraushaar, one of them.
So Cain could have little to lose by sticking to his denials and moving on.
His combative new lawyer, Lin Wood, could pave the way to stability for a candidate who has struggled with consistency as he responded to the breaking story of harassment allegations. Wood, based in Atlanta, has represented the family of Jon Benet Ramsey and the man wrongly accused of being the Atlanta Olympic park bomber. And he's warning any other women who might come forward with allegations against Cain that they would be aggressively scrutinized.
At the same time, the Cain camp seems to be making efforts to shore up support among women, including rolling out the endorsement of a prominent Republican female state lawmaker in his home state of Georgia, Renee Unterman.
And he's getting more aggressive getting his campaign message out. Cain is airing his first television ad in Iowa and preparing to sign a lease on a new campaign office in Atlanta that will serve as a hub for volunteers.
Facing voters for the first time since the allegations emerged nearly two weeks ago, Cain met with friendly tea party groups in Michigan.
"How you beat Obama? Beat him with a Cain!" he told one supporter at a crowded diner in Ypsilanti, near Detroit.
The crowd cheered.
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