- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain refused Monday to directly address a media report that said he had been accused of sexually suggestive behavior toward at least two female employees while he was the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.

Still, Mr. Cain acknowledged, “I do have a sense of humor, and some people have a problem with that.”

The former businessman said he would discuss the allegations later in the day while appearing at the National Press Club.

“I will take all your arrows,” Cain said, but he made clear at his first event of the day that he would talk only about his tax plan at the American Enterprise Institute, whose moderators refused to allow questions about the allegations.

When asked directly if the allegations cast a shadow over his “9-9-9” tax plan, he responded, “I am going by the ground rules that my hosts have set.”

As he was leaving the stage, he stopped, turned to the crowd and talked about his sense of humor without providing any context. He said his staff tells him to be himself — or “let Herman be Herman.”

He added, “Herman is going to stay Herman.”

Mr. Cain also was appearing on Fox News, with his campaign in full-scale damage-control mode in the wake of a Politico report late Sunday that suggested that Mr. Cain had been accused of sexual harassment toward at least two female employees. The report said the women signed agreements with the restaurant group that gave them five-figure financial payouts to leave the association and barred them from discussing their departures. Neither woman was identified.

The report was based on anonymous sources and, in one case, what the publication said was a review of documentation that described the allegations and the resolution.

Mr. Cain, a self-styled outsider relatively new to the national stage, is facing a new level of scrutiny after a burst of momentum in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. He’s been steadily at or near the top of national surveys and polls in early presidential nominating states, competitive with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The former pizza company executive has been pointing to his long record in business to argue that he has the credentials needed to be president during a time of economic strife.

Early Monday, Cain campaign manager Mark Block told MSNBC that “Herman Cain has never sexually harassed anybody. Period. End of story.” Mr. Block said he’s spoken to Mr. Cain about the Politico report and “he said emphatically the story is not true.”

Mr. Block added, “I am not personally aware of any cash settlement relating to sexual harassment charges to Mr. Cain” and referred questions about whether there were settlements to the National Restaurant Association.

A message seeking comment from Peter Kilgore, listed on the National Restaurant Association website as its chief legal counsel, was not immediately returned.

In a statement Sunday to the Associated Press, his campaign told the AP that the Politico report was not true.

“Inside-the-Beltway media have begun to launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain,” spokesman J.D. Gordon said in a written statement. “Dredging up thinly sourced allegations stemming from Mr. Cain’s tenure as the Chief Executive Officer at the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, political trade press are now casting aspersions on his character and spreading rumors that never stood up to the facts.”

Asked if Mr. Cain’s campaign was denying the report, Mr. Gordon said, “Yes.”

“These are baseless allegations,” Mr. Gordon said in a second interview later Sunday evening. “To my knowledge, this is not an accurate story.”

But Politico said that Mr. Gordon told their publication that Mr. Cain himself had indicated to campaign officials that he was “vaguely familiar” with the charges and that the restaurant association’s general counsel had resolved the matter.

Politico also said it confronted Cain early Sunday outside of the CBS News’ Washington bureau, where he had just been interviewed on “Face the Nation.”

“I am not going to comment on that,” he told Politico when asked specifically about one of the woman’s claims.

When asked if he had ever been accused of harassment by a woman, he responded, Politico said, by asking the reporter, “Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?”

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