Herman Cain was already struggling with the leap from campaign novelty to serious presidential contender when he was hit with sexual harassment charges. The contradictory statements he made in his defense seem likely to fan rather than quell the controversy.
Heightening their import, the years-old allegations surfaced as the presidential race enters a crucial two-month stretch ahead of the first balloting on Jan. 3.
The result was angry denunciations by some conservatives, who said Cain was a victim of media bias, and told-you-so statements by others who have never given much credence to his candidacy.
Politico reported Sunday night that two female employees of the National Restaurant Assn. accused the Republican candidate of improper conduct during his tenure as the organization's chief from late 1996 to 1999. The women, who were not identified, signed agreements with the association that included financial payouts and barred them from discussing their departures, Politico said.
Cain on Monday called the allegations a "witch hunt" and said, "In all my over 40 years of business experience … I have never sexually harassed anyone."
But in a series of interviews over a period of hours, Cain offered several different accounts of what happened and what he knew.
On Fox News Channel on Monday morning, Cain said that if the association had arrived at a settlement with anyone, he did not know about it. "I hope it wasn't for much," Cain said.
Later, at an appearance at the National Press Club, Cain again denied the harassment charges and said he did not know whether the matter was settled, or how much it might have cost. When he was accused — "falsely accused, I might add" — Cain said he stood aside and allowed the trade group's attorney and human resources officer deal with the matter.
Yet Politico reported that the head of the association's human resources department said she was unfamiliar with any complaints regarding Cain.
In a second appearance on the Fox network, Cain spoke knowledgeably about a settlement with one woman, saying it may have been for two or three months' salary. "I do remember my general counsel saying we didn't pay all of the money they demanded," Cain said.
Cain muddled things further in a PBS interview when asked whether he had ever behaved inappropriately. "In my opinion, no," he said. "But as you would imagine, it's in the eye of the person who thinks that maybe I crossed the line."
Many conservative activists were quick Monday to rally behind Cain. L. Brent Bozell III, a frequent media critic, called the allegations a "high-tech lynching," summoning the language Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas used when accused of harassment at his explosive 1991 confirmation hearings.
"This will play to his advantage with the grass roots," predicted K.B. Forbes, a GOP strategist who has worked for previous insurgent candidates. "One of their favorite lines is, 'It's the liberal media.'"
But for insiders — donors, Republican strategists and others among the political establishment — the episode could raise further doubts about Cain as well as concerns about the wherewithal of his seat-of-its-pants campaign operation.
According to Politico, campaign operatives knew the article was coming for 10 days. And yet in its initial statement — which was widely circulated — the campaign did not deny the harassment allegations. That was left, many hours later, to Cain.
In further testament to his new prominence, Cain faced allegations Monday that supporters may have violated state and federal laws in setting up his candidacy. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that two of his highest-ranking staff members used a nonprofit group to pay for tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, including chartered flights. Cain said Monday he was unaware of the matter but would investigate.
Those campaign finance charges, however, were overshadowed by the more sensational allegations of personal impropriety.
The controversy came at an especially difficult time for Cain, who was visiting Washington this week for a series of meetings and appearances intended to allay doubts about his underdog candidacy. Widely considered an afterthought for most of the campaign, Cain began surging after an upset victory in a Florida straw poll in late September.
The former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza and onetime member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has come under greater scrutiny since then, not always to his advantage. He revised his trademark "9-9-9" tax plan after economists said it would force many Americans to pay more. He delivered contradictory statements on abortion, bargaining with terrorists and installation of an electrified fence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Still, Cain has remained at or near the top of several Republican preference polls. A recent Des Moines Register survey showed him essentially tied with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for first in the state.
Cain's GOP opponents ignored the storm surrounding his candidacy on Monday, consistent with a strategy of making nice with their upstart rival.
Even before the allegations surfaced, advisors to some of the candidates were convinced Cain would soon fall away, a victim of his weak campaign operation and lack of depth on various issues.
"Cain has demonstrated how far a talented motivational speaker can go in the Republican primary process with a few catchy proposals and debate performances," said Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain's 2008 presidential effort. "But as people get ready to begin the voting process, it is increasingly clear that he's making this up as he goes along and there's not a lot of substance there."
As recently as two weeks ago, Cain's staff numbered just 35, a far-flung band of political novices, public relations operatives and volunteers who seemed overwhelmed by the sudden crush of media attention. Virtually none has experience running a presidential campaign.
Still, one of Cain's greatest assets, a quick and clever sense of humor, was obviously intact on Monday.
Asked by his National Press Club host if he would end his appearance with a song, Cain readily complied. He sang a verse of his favorite gospel hymn: "He Looked Beyond My Faults."
Staff writers Robin Abcarian, Kim Geiger and James Oliphant contributed to this report.