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 Cain of inappropriate sexual behavior. He said he didn't know whether the association provided any such settlements, and he declined to address specifics of the accusations or the resolution.
"There's nothing else there to dig up," he declared at the National Press Club. "We have no idea the source of this witch hunt, which is really what it is."
He added, "This bulls-eye on my back has gotten bigger."
Cain said an investigation into accusations of impropriety while he was the head of the restaurant group determined they were baseless.
"I've never sexually harassed anyone," he told Fox News.
In a later interview with The Associated Press, Cain was asked if he was unaware of the women's specific allegations. "Some of them," he responded.
When pressed, he said was not aware of any of the allegations.
"That was 12 years ago. So no, I don't remember," he said.
Earlier in the day, Cain acknowledged, "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.
Earlier 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.
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.
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