The former restaurant association executive said he'd been "falsely accused" but remained unflappable at appearances in D.C.
Updated 5:45 p.m.
Facing the most serious challenge yet to his improbably successful presidential campaign, Herman Cain sought to stare down an explosive new report that he sexually harassed female underlings at the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s.
Cain acknowledged that he had been accused of sexual harassment while serving as head of the association, but claimed an internal investigation cleared him of the charge. And he said he had no knowledge of any settlements paid to the alleged victims.
"While at the Restaurant Association I was accused of sexual harassment -- falsely accused, I might add," Cain said at the National Press Club Monday afternoon.
"I was falsely accused of sexual harassment, and when the charges were brought, as the leader of the organization I recused myself and allowed my general counsel and my human resource officer to deal with the situation. And it was concluded after a thorough investigation that it had no basis."
Politico reported Sunday night that the association paid five-figure settlements to two women to settle their claims that Cain sexually harassed them. But Cain said if that occurred, it was done without the knowledge of the group's president and CEO.
"I am unaware of any sort of settlement. I hope it wasn't for much, because I didn't do anything," he said.
The candidate sought to paint the charges as unsourced innuendo, referring to "two anonymous sources" as the basis of the Politico story. But the article cited numerous sources with knowledge of the allegations, and the publication said it had confronted Cain prior to publication with the names of the women involved.
"We have no idea the source of this witch hunt, which is really what it is," Cain contended.
At the end of his press club appearance, at the request of the event's emcee, Cain sang a gospel hymn in his feathery baritone: "He looked beyond my faults and saw my needs."
Cain's rebuttals came in a series of Washington media and in-person appearances as he followed through on previously scheduled commitments to speak at a conservative think tank and the press club.
It was a schedule that, even without the scandal, would have put Cain in direct confrontation with the Beltway establishment that's been so skeptical of his lightweight, often nonsensical, but undeniably appealing -- and successful -- campaign.
The scandal, if it sticks, has the potential to damage the perceived qualities that most endear Cain to Republican voters: his straightforwardness, his uprightness and his vast personal charm. Part of the reason he hasn't been harmed by his continued obfuscations on policy is that he projects an air of steadiness and clarity. He has always seemed, for all his incoherence, possessed of a fundamental decency.
As the frenzy around the story unfolded Monday, prominent conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham seemed to be taking Cain's side. But the lingering loose ends and inconsistencies in Cain's account promised to keep the story alive a while longer. New information would further prolong it.
Cain first addressed the accusations earlier Monday on Fox News. Though he appeared flustered at the start of the interview, he regained his footing and maintained his usual unflappable demeanor.
But in a sign of the seriousness with which Cain's camp is taking the issue, he revealed that his wife of 43 years, Gloria, who has been absent from the campaign trail, will also sit for an interview.
"You will meet my wife publicly in an exclusive interview that we are currently planning," Cain said. He didn't specify when or where the interview would take place and said she would continue to largely stay out of the political arena.
"I'm an unconventional candidate, as you know. We're running an unconventional campaign," he said. "The involvement of my family will also be unconventional."
Cain's day in Washington had begun with a morning appearance at the American Enterprise Institute to discuss his "9-9-9" tax plan. It was a surreal scene as the throng of media sought hints of a reference to the scandal while the moderator refused to let the discussion wander off-topic.
At the end of the event, Cain announced, apropos of nothing: "Yes, I am an unconventional candidate, and yes, I do have a sense of humor and some people have a problem with that." But, he said, "Herman be Herman. And Herman is going to stay Herman."
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