WASHINGTON — Denying he ever sexually harassed anyone, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain declared Monday he was falsely accused in the 1990s while he was head of the National Restaurant Association and the allegations are surfacing now as part of a "witch hunt."
The former pizza company executive was responding to a Politico report that said the trade group gave financial settlements to at least two female employees who had accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior.
But throughout the day, Cain offered conflicting responses as to whether he remembered the specifics of the allegations or the existence of settlements with the women. That raised new questions about the candidate who now is at or near the top in many polls on the GOP race.
At an appearance at the National Press Club Monday afternoon, Cain said he did not know if the trade association provided any settlements, and he declined to address specifics of the accusations or any resolution.
"I am unaware of any sort of settlement. I hope it wasn't for much, because I didn't do anything," he said.
But in an interview later with Fox News, Cain said he did know about at least one of the settlements. "Yes, there was some sort of settlement or termination," he said.
During his earlier appearance at the press club, he declared: "There's nothing else there to dig up. ... We have no idea the source of this witch hunt, which is really what it is."
In an interview with The Associated Press immediately afterward, Cain first said he had some memory of specific allegations – and then said he was not aware of any.
"Some of them," he responded initially.
When pressed, he said: "That was 12 years ago. So no, I don't remember."
But in later interviews with PBS NewsHour and with Fox, Cain recalled details from the incident. "Once I referenced this lady's height and I was standing near her," he told PBS, and the woman "that that that was too close for comfort."
Cain defended himself. "It was in my office, the door was wide open, and my secretary was sitting right there, and we were standing there and I made the little gesture," he said.
In the Fox News interview, Cain insisted he knew of only one formal settlement of a sexual harassment claim. He said Politico told him the name of a second woman, but that he could not recall that woman making a formal complaint. He said he had no knowledge of the second woman receiving a settlement from the trade association.
Cain also said he knows of no other women who have made formal complaints. "Is it possible that someone is going to make something up? Yes," Cain said. "But is it going to be credible, as in there was an actual sexual harassment case filed? No."
Cain started the day with a breakfast appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, and he said, "I do have a sense of humor and some people have a problem with that." In the interview with AP, Cain said that comment did not refer to the sexual harassment allegations.
"I was just referring to my natural sense of humor. So it was not related to that, OK?" he said.
He also had said in humorous fashion, "As a result of today's big news story, I really know what it feels like to be No. 1."
The trade association declined to comment on the allegations.
"The incidents in question relate to personnel matters that allegedly took place nearly fifteen years ago. Consistent with our longstanding policy, we don't comment on personnel issues relating to current or former employees," National Restaurant Association spokeswoman Sue Hensley said in a statement.
Cain – a self-styled outsider relatively new to the national spotlight – is facing a new level of scrutiny after a burst of momentum in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
He's been at or near the top of national surveys and polls in early presidential nominating states, competitive with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, long considered the Republican to beat. Cain has been pointing to his long record in business to argue that he has the credentials to be president during a time of economic strife.
So far, Cain has seemed to weather a series of stumbles; the former radio talk show host had to clarify recent statements on abortion, the treatment of terrorism suspects and the placing of an electrified fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. He's also shrugged off questions that have started to surface about his management style, including criticisms about a lackluster approach to his own presidential campaign. He lags his top competitors in organization and fundraising.
But on Monday Cain's campaign was also facing allegations of financial misconduct. A report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel cited documents showing a tax-exempt charity, Prosperity USA, provided Cain's campaign with about $40,000 in goods and services as it first got off the ground. The charity, founded by Cain chief of staff Mark Block and deputy chief of staff Linda Hansen, isn't allowed to contribute to a presidential campaign.
All of the new allegations could hurt Cain's efforts to reassure the Republican establishment that someone with so little political experience – and who hasn't been fully vetted on a national stage – is prepared to go up against President Barack Obama next fall.
But there were signs that conservatives were rallying behind him, attacking the report as inaccurate and perhaps racially motivated.
The head of the conservative Media Research Center, Brent Bozell, called the Politico story a "High-tech lynching of Herman Cain." That was a reference to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' response to a former worker's allegations during his confirmation hearing.
"In the eyes of the liberal media, Herman Cain is just another uppity black American who has had the audacity to leave the liberal plantation," Bozell wrote on the conservative website Newsbusters.org.
The allegations came to light Sunday night when Politico reported that at least two women who complained about sexually inappropriate behavior while working for Cain had 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.
Politico said Cain refused to comment when asked specifically about one of the woman's claims. And when asked if he had ever been accused of harassment by a woman, the publication said Cain responded by asking the reporter, "Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?"
Despite the controversy, Cain pressed ahead with his full slate of campaign appearances in Washington on Monday, and has planned appearances in the city later this week.
At the speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he refused to answer questions about the allegations. Still, 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."
An hour later, he was on Fox News.
"If more allegations come, I assure you, people will simply make them up," Cain said. Besides his job as CEO of Godfather's Pizza, he worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
"What you can expect from my campaign is for me to stay on message, for us to continue to do the things and execute our strategy in order to win the nomination," Cain said.
"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."
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