WASHINGTON — His popularity sinking and his credibility under attack, Herman Cain suspended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination on Saturday in a defiant, unapologetic blaze of glory.
For all practical purposes, Cain's suspension means he has dropped out, ending his quest for the White House because of the political damage cause by allegations of sexual harassment and marital infidelity.
"I am suspending my presidential campaign because of the continued distraction, the continued hurt caused on me and my family — not because we are not fighters, not because I'm not a fighter," the former Godfather's Pizza CEO told a loyal hometown crowd in Atlanta.
Cain, who has denied all the allegations, was accompanied by his wife, Gloria, in a rare campaign appearance. He said that he and his family were "at peace" over the ordeal.
His decision likely caused the party hierarchy to relax a little as well. Cain's personal drama had become a distraction, drawing attention away from the rest of the GOP field.
Many in the Republican establishment also never thought Cain was a serious candidate to begin with, despite his ability to draw support. He had little in the way of ground organizations in key early states, and his travel scheduled sometimes seemed to indicate more of an interest in selling his book than his candidacy.
Cain said that he got out also because his ability to raise money had suffered. Suspending his campaign instead of shutting it down altogether still allows him to raise money to help pay off his debts.
His farewell was trademark Cain: confident, cheeky and challenging of political convention.
Cain said he intended to remain a "voice of the people" and promised to soon endorse one of his former Republican rivals. He also announced that he was beginning his "Plan B" — creating a new organization whose goal would be to change Washington "from the outside."
"The pundits would Iike for me to shut up, drop out and go away," he said to cheers of support. "I am not going to be silenced and I am not going away."
Cain's turnaround in political fortunes was another abrupt shift in a chase for the nomination that has seen more twists and turns than the Monaco Grand Prix.
A new Des Moines Register poll showed that Cain's support in Iowa, where the first voting of the election season will take place Jan. 3, had dwindled to just 8 percent — down from 23 percent a month ago, when he briefly led the pack. That was also just before the sexual allegations surfaced.
"There weren't any deep-founded beliefs and understanding about who he was," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and former head of the Florida Republican Party.
"His image was not deeply ingrained in the mind of the voters. They liked his populism, his charisma, but the moment people heard news that was not complimentary, his fortunes dropped."
Cain became the latest in a series of Republican White House hopefuls who seemed to capture lightning in a bottle — only to see it flicker and disappear.
First there was real estate mogul and reality television star Donald Trump, then Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, then Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Bachmann and Perry remain in the race.
The latest surging hopeful is also the one likely to gain the most from Cain's withdrawal — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign has picked up momentum since Cain began slipping. Gingrich might be in the best position to appeal to the "Anyone but Romney" segment of Republicans — who don't believe that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the only candidate to remain consistently in the top tier, is conservative enough.
Unlike his rivals, Cain's flameout had less to do with his political or policy skills — although those certainly were called into question — than with his personal behavior.
First he was hit with allegations of sexual harassment by several women when he led the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. Cain denied the claims, but his shifting response badly damaged his credibility.
Then, last week, Ginger White of Atlanta alleged that she and Cain had carried on a 13-year affair. Cain denied it, saying that he had helped her out with money, but that they were merely friends.
"Whether these (allegations) were true or not, he badly mishandled the story," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who used to work for Bachmann's campaign. "Everyone is looking at candidates under a microscope and asking, 'Would you make a good president?'"
If all that wasn't enough, Cain revealed a shaky grasp of foreign policy when he was asked on camera recently whether he agreed with President Barack Obama's handling of the revolution in Libya.
"OK, Libya," Cain said, before pausing for several seconds. "President Obama supported the uprising, correct?" he said. The clip was lampooned countless times on talk shows and the Internet.
Throughout his run, Cain reveled in his outsider status and lack of political background — and did so again Saturday.
"I didn't fit the usual description of somebody that ought to be running for president," he said. "I had never held public office before. I didn't have high name I.D., and I didn't have a kajillion dollars."
The announcement itself had a frenzied build-up, with pundits speculating all morning about what Cain might do. Would he stay in, issuing one more stiff-arm to the political establishment?
Ironically, the stage for the announcement had been meant to showcase the grand opening of his Georgia campaign headquarters.
Outwardly, Cain put his best face on the ending.
"I grew up in a world of segregated water fountains," he told his supporters. "My father was a chauffeur, my mother was a maid and 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 the common man could lead this nation."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more international news visit McClatchy's Politics page.