Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain moved belatedly but forcefully Monday to deny allegations that he sexually harassed two female subordinates while serving as president of the National Restaurant Association in the mid-1990s.
The former Godfather's Pizza CEO spent much of his day in Washington on Monday dealing with the fallout from the charges, which were published Sunday night and threatened to obscure his campaign message and slow the momentum that has propelled him in recent weeks to the head of the 2012 Republican presidential sweepstakes.
"I have never sexually harassed anyone," Mr. Cain said during a guest appearance at the National Press Club, just blocks from the White House. "While at the Restaurant Association, I was accused of sexual harassment — falsely accused, I might add."
When the charges were brought, Mr. Cain said, he "recused" himself and allowed his general counsel and human resources officer to deal with the situation.
"And it was concluded, after a thorough investigation, that it had no basis," he said.
But Mr. Cain, 65, clouded his own message later in the day in a series of interviews in which he appeared to contradict his statements that he knew little about the charges or the financial settlement that the trade group made with the women who lodged the complaints.
On Sunday, Politico, a Washington-based politics newspaper, reported that the National Restaurant Association had paid two women separation packages "in the five-figure range" that barred them from speaking about the accusations after they accused Mr. Cain, at the time the organization's CEO, of harassment.
Coming on the heals of questions about his stance on abortion, his 9-9-9 plan to overhaul the federal government's tax code, and his off-the-cuff remarks about erecting an electrified fence on the U.S.-Mexico border, the accusations once again tested Mr. Cain's fledgling political operation.
Ron Bonjean, a GOP political consultant, said the way the Cain camp handles the unearthed accusations will help define how it "can handle crisis at the presidential level."
"The charges may look like a cheap shot, but the campaign must quickly tackle the accusation and frame it in their way," he said.
Mr. Cain has jumped in the polls in recent months, thanks to his charismatic style and ability to excite conservative crowds. He also has demonstrated an ability to deflect criticism and spin support in his direction.
All the while, he is a newcomer to the national political stage and running a unique political campaign, perhaps best embodied by an ad that features his campaign chief of staff, Mark Block, puffing a cigarette.
When he came under fire for telling a crowd that he planned on erecting a 20-foot barbed-wire, electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, Mr. Cain said that "America needs to learn to take a joke."
Asked about a Bloomberg Government analysis that showed his plan to replace the federal tax code with a 9 percent tax on business and personal income, and a 9 percent national sales tax would yield less revenue than the current system, Mr. Cain simply said that "the problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect."
More recently, some have questioned his pro-life credentials after an interview in which he said that ending a pregnancy caused by rape or incest is a decision that "ultimately gets down to a choice that the family of that mother has to make."
On Monday, he repeated claims he also made on "Fox News Sunday" that he is pro-life without exception and blamed the reporter for taking his comments out of context "to come to the erroneous conclusion that I am something other than pro-life from conception — end of story."
But the most salacious accusations were driven by Politico's story, which did not name the female restaurant association employees, nor did it specify the kind of "sexually suggestive behavior" in the accusations against Mr. Cain.
The Cain campaign Sunday refused to say whether the accusations were true and claimed the effort was part of a smear campaign. But on Monday, the camp had settled on a firm rejection of the accusations.
Republican strategist John Feehery said the news is "potentially devastating."
"Cain hasn't run and won at any political level, so he is largely an untested candidate," Mr. Feehery said. "Bill Clinton was able to survive these allegations, but he was the rare politician who could."
The report helped attract large crowds to his Monday morning appearances at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, and then at the National Press Club, where he dismissed the report as a "witch hunt" and said he was "unaware of any sort of settlement" with the women.
"I hope it wasn't for much, because I didn't do anything," he said, before questioning the overall credibility of a story that hinged in part on "two anonymous sources claiming sexual harassment."
"We're not going to chase anonymous sources when there's no basis for the accusations," he said.
Though he acknowledged the story was a distraction to his campaign, Mr. Cain showed no signs of cracking Monday under the mounting political pressure and growing media circus.
He told the crowd at the National Press Club that he would be "delighted to clear the air." Earlier in the day, he assured the crowd at the American Enterprise Institute that he would continue to pursue the nomination on his terms.
"By the way, folks, yes, I am an unconventional candidate and, yes, I do have a sense of humor — some people have a problem with that," he said. "But to quote my chief of staff and all the people that I talk to around this country, 'Herman, be Herman.'
"And Herman is going to stay Herman," he promised.
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