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Women’s rights groups expressed frustration that, 20 years after the Thomas hearings, sexual harassment complaints again had been reduced to a partisan fight.

Erin Matson, a vice president for the National Organization for Women, said the women in question should be given the benefit of the doubt.

“It is deeply insulting that this is being called political,” Ms. Matson said. “Sexual harassment allegations are always about a woman who is simply trying to go to work.”

Still, for some, the desire to oust Mr. Obama could trump most anything else.

Sonia Conte, a 73-year-old retired accountant from Akron, Ohio, said the allegations about Mr. Cain don’t change her opinion of him: She is concerned that he has little governing experience and prefers former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“But I’d still rather vote for Herman Cain than Barack Obama,” said Ms. Conte, a registered Democrat. Mr. Obama, she said, has mishandled the economy and the end of the Iraq war. “Anybody but Obama.”

Mr. Cain acknowledged the charges could harm his campaign at a critical juncture.

“Obviously, some people are going to be turned off by this cloud that someone wanted to put over my campaign,” he said. “But a lot of people aren’t going to be turned off. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”