Cliff Owen, Associated Press
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — His presidential campaign in turmoil, Republican Herman Cain refused to say Wednesday whether he will ask his former employer — the National Restaurant Association — to terminate confidentiality restrictions on women who accused him of sexual harassment in the 1990s while he was head of the trade group.
The candidate was supposed to take questions after a speech to health care professionals but he ultimately refused and left the hotel through a back door.
"I'm here to visit with these doctors and that's what I'm going to talk about, so don't even bother asking me all of these other questions that you all are curious about, OK? Don't even bother," a testy Cain told a throng of reporters who were peppering him with questions.
When pressed about the allegations, Cain raised his voice and said "What did I say? Excuse me. Excuse me!" as hotel security led him through a hotel hallway jammed with journalists in a Washington suburb. "What part of 'no' don't people understand?"
Try as he might to project an image of campaign business as usual, the former Godfather's Pizza chief executive appeared frazzled and couldn't escape the questions that have dogged him since the allegations surfaced three days ago — two months before the leadoff Iowa caucuses and just as polls show him at the head of the GOP field alongside former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
In the latest twist, a lawyer for one of his accusers is asking the National Restaurant Association to free her from a confidentiality agreement so she can talk openly about her allegations and respond to Cain's claims that the complaints were "totally baseless and totally false."
"I know her very well," lawyer Joel P. Bennett told CNN late Tuesday, "and I'm sure she would not make a false complaint."
Cain's campaign manager, Mark Block, repeatedly refused to say whether the campaign was in discussions with the trade association over letting the woman talk freely. Block said the campaign would address that question "when it's appropriate."
A spokeswoman for the restaurant association, Sue Hensley, said Tuesday night that the group had not been contacted by Bennett. Messages seeking comment Wednesday were not immediately returned.
The pressure on Cain only increased early Wednesday when a pillar of the GOP establishment suggested that the Georgia businessman should ask the association to waive the agreement so that the woman can talk openly about her allegations.
"What are the facts?" asked Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on MSNBC. "If you have a confidentiality agreement that keeps the public from finding out something that the public is interested in knowing the facts, you ought to go on and get the facts out."
"Herman Cain's interest is getting this behind him," added Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman.
As the day began, Cain spoke to the Northern Virginia Technology Association, saying: "There are factions that are trying to destroy me personally, as well as this campaign." He didn't say to whom he was referring, but he said "the voice of the people" is stronger.
Over the past two days, Cain has admitted he knew of one agreement between the restaurant association and a woman who accused him of sexual harassment. He has said the woman initially asked for a large financial settlement but ultimately received two to three months' pay as part of a separation agreement. Cain also acknowledged remembering one of the woman's accusations against him, saying he stepped close to her to make a reference to her height and told her she was the same height as his wife.
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