"It is totally baseless and totally false," the presidential candidate told Fox News on Monday morning. "Never have I ever committed any kind of sexual harassment."
He added: "If the restaurant association did a settlement, I wasn’t even aware of it and I hope it wasn’t for much. If there was a settlement, it was handled by some of the other officers at the restaurant association."
It remains unclear how the trade organization could have reached settlements with employees, with Cain’s own conduct at issue, without his knowledge. But his flat denial was far stronger than the carefully worded statement his campaign issued when the story broke Sunday night.
Video: 'I Was Falsely Accused'
It is difficult to assess the potentially damaging allegations, as the article relies on unnamed sources, does not identify the women, and does not detail what is said to have happened. But the piece does say that the women received financial settlements in the five-figure range on leaving the trade group.
Asked for comment Sunday night, Cain’s vice president for communications, J.D. Gordon, responded with a statement titled “Inside the Beltway media attacks Cain.”
In the statement, Gordon accused the media of beginning to “launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain.”
He added: “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.”
Despite Gordon’s characterization of the “political trade press” assailing his boss, what is at issue here is a single report in Politico—one whose allegations Cain has declined to flatly deny.
Politico says that “the women complained of sexually suggestive behavior by Cain that made them angry and uncomfortable” and that they later signed agreements barring them from talking about their departures. There were “conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature,” the report says, as well as “descriptions of physical gestures that were not overtly sexual but that made women who experienced or witnessed them uncomfortable.” An unnamed source cited by Politico says one of the women cited “an unwanted sexual advance” by Cain at a hotel where an event was being held.
In an encounter Sunday outside CBS’s Washington bureau, where he had just appeared on Face the Nation, Cain told Politico he has “had thousands of people working for me” over the years and could not comment “until I see some facts or some concrete evidence.” He also declined to comment when given the name of one of the women said to be involved.
A Politico reporter asked, “Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life of harassment by a woman?” The Republican candidate is described as having glared at the reporter and, after the question had been repeated a third time, asking, “Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?”
Gordon, without issuing a specific denial, portrayed Cain as a victim of larger forces: “Since Washington establishment critics haven’t had much luck in attacking Mr. Cain’s ideas to fix a bad economy and create jobs, they are trying to attack him in any way they can. Sadly, we’ve seen this movie played out before—a prominent conservative targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics.” Cain has responded to past criticism by casting himself as an outsider taking on the Republican power structure.
In the article, Gordon said Cain was “vaguely familiar” with the situation and referred detailed questions to Peter Kilgore, the restaurant group’s general counsel, who held that job when Cain headed the association from 1996 to 1999. Kilgore told Politico he could not comment on personnel matters.
Whether the allegations become a serious impediment for Cain, the former pizza executive who has surged to the top of most GOP presidential polls, depends in part on how loudly they ricochet through the media echo chamber. Several weeks of bad publicity over mistakes and missteps on such matters as Cain’s position on abortion and an electrified border fence have done little to slow his rise. Many voters appear to cut him considerable slack as an avowed nonpolitician.
The arc of the story will also depend on whether anyone comes forward to corroborate the allegations on the record, and whether the women choose to surface publicly. Politico quotes Denise Marie Fugo, chairwoman of the association’s board at the time of Cain’s departure, as calling him “very gracious” and saying of the allegations, “I have never heard that. It would be news to me.”
Even if confirmed, the allegations fall far short of what other politicians have been forced to acknowledge in the post-Lewinsky era. In describing comments that made subordinates uncomfortable, they are more reminiscent of Anita Hill’s complaints about Clarence Thomas, which became public during his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Bill Clinton remains enormously popular, despite his affair with a White House intern that led the House to impeach him. Newt Gingrich, one of Cain’s GOP rivals and the man who led the impeachment drive, has acknowledged having an affair with a House staffer who is now his third wife, Callista. Gavin Newsom was elected lieutenant governor of California last year despite admitting an affair with the wife of a former top aide.
Whether the allegations become a serious impediment for Cain depends in part on how loudly they ricochet through the media echo chamber.
On the other hand, Anthony Weiner was forced to give up his House seat earlier this year for sending graphic texts and nude photos to women he had never met.
The underfinanced Cain campaign relies heavily on television interviews, and it is hard to imagine that the candidate will not be forced to offer a more detailed explanation of what happened in the late 1990s.
One thing is clear: the fact that Herman Cain’s past is being dredged for dirt is a sign that he is finally being taken seriously as a presidential candidate—and that the most difficult part of his campaign may lie ahead.