WASHINGTON -- The loudest noise heard here this week wasn't the Occupy Wall Street drums. Nor did it come from the spin room of Herman Cain's campaign, struggling to beat back accusations of sexual harassment.
It was the sound of silence -- Gloria Cain's silence.
Mrs. Cain, the hitherto unknown wife of the Republican presidential candidate, canceled a well-publicized Friday night interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren on Thursday, only hours before she was to film it. At the time, no reason was offered for the cancellation.
Much of the buzz that preceded the interview stemmed from how little is known about Mrs. Cain, save that she's a regular churchgoer whom her neighbors describe as "gentle," kind and devoted to her husband. As luck would have it, her husband could use all the support he can get these days.
Since Sunday night, Mr. Cain's presidential campaign has been rocked by ongoing allegations that he sexually harassed at least three women during his tenure as CEO of the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s. The news hurled the campaign into chaos, fueled by contradictory statements made by the candidate and finger pointing by campaign staffers. Late Friday afternoon, one of the women released a statement through her attorney, the first from one of Cain's accusers, alleging that she had been the victim of "inappropriate behaviors and unwanted advances."
Faced with a rapidly swelling controversy, the Cain campaign dispatched Gloria to her husband's side this week and booked her a big primetime interview. But as more accusations arose, the idea of a live, one-on-one with Van Susteren began to seem increasingly risky. "The mechanics of the interview would have been easy," said former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye, "but [Mrs. Cain] isn't used to doing this kind of appearance, and she hasn't been involved with the campaign, so it's not fair to bring her in now. Not because she doesn't love and support her husband, but because she's never done this kind of thing before."
Veteran Democratic communications strategist Erikka Knuti agrees that introducing Mrs. Cain to the American people right now would be "incredibly tough," and could present team Cain with an even bigger problem. "Given how this week went, if Gloria Cain appears in public, and she's not ready to address the allegations against her husband yet, then they risk creating one more perceived victim of Herman Cain's behavior: Mrs. Cain."
And therein lies the problem. Gloria Cain's hasty retreat from the national spotlight robbed her husband of his most compelling character witness, at the precise moment that he desperately needs one. And while the decision to cancel the interview may have been politically savvy, it also put Cain's campaign in the unenviable position of trying to keep her conspicuous silence from raising doubts about her support for him. Earlier this week, Herman Cain told radio talk show host Sean Hannity that she is "still 200 percent supportive of me in this whole race." But unless Gloria Cain voices that support herself, voters may think his claim rings hollow.
Heye thinks the recent media focus on Gloria Cain could create a distraction if she attends Wednesday's Republican presidential debate. "If she shows up at that debate, her presence will be a story that overshadows her husband's policy points," he said.
Nevertheless, he believes Cain "made the right call" by canceling the Fox News interview. The campaign's only mistake, as he sees it, "was publicizing it before they were absolutely certain it was the right thing to do."
But while Heye said he would advise Gloria Cain to stay out of the spotlight for a few weeks, Knuti, a former communications director for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), sees a pressing need for the candidate and his wife to hit the campaign trail together -- precisely because of the sexual nature of the allegations against him. "This is politics, and you don't get 'happy marriage' points if your marriage isn't visible," she said.
"Hearing from Gloria Cain would help voters to see any transgressions by Herman Cain as part of the couple's private, married life," Knuti said, "more like a flaw of judgement in a husband, and not a flaw of leadership in a candidate."
The next challenge for the Cain campaign is determining how to introduce the candidate's wife to supporters and donors in a way that capitalizes on the strength of their 43-year marriage, without forcing Gloria to field awkward questions from the Washington press corps. With fewer than eight weeks left to go before the Iowa Caucuses, the question is how and where.
Author and relationship expert Vicki Larson told HuffPost she believes Gloria Cain has a unique opportunity at this moment to "control her message" -- Washington-speak for "not answer any questions."
"Allegations are a part of political life," said Larson, an editor at the Marin Independent Journal in California. "But now is the time when Gloria Cain needs to issue a statement that conveys support for her husband, to reassure donors and voters that she believes in Herman Cain -- his principles, and what he stands for. It's also important for her to just leave it at that, without wading deeper into the controversy."
"This woman knows her husband really, really well, which means she knows his flaws as well as his strong suits," Larson added. "I would be very surprised if this controversy threatens the long-term stability of their marriage."
Nevertheless, the public has certain expectations of political spouses, according to author and family therapist Susan Pease Gadoua, who said Gloria Cain's silence thus far "makes quite a statement of its own."
Pease Gadoua also noted that Mrs. Cain's behavior so far on the campaign trail could make for a difficult transition if she were ever to become first lady. "If Gloria Cain is really as private and publicity-shy as her husband claims she is, its hard to imagine she would enjoy the job of first lady, which is intensely public," she added.
Long-term issues aside, Herman Cain's presidential bid remains bogged down in controversy this weekend, and Gloria Cain's silence hangs like a cloud above it. "Until now, he has run his campaign like a CEO, where he's the boss and he's always on his own," Knuti said. "But politics is a team sport, and once you're in the big leagues it matters who your spouse is. Americans want a first couple, not just a president."
"The way that the Cain team is handling Gloria Cain reflects a big part of the reason why it's not evolving into a sophisticated operation," she added. "Right now, Gloria Cain raises more questions than she can answer."