NEW YORK — Herman Cain has long cast himself the scoundrel of the Republican presidential field, mocking political correctness and dissing rivals with a well-timed zinger. When his jokes raised eyebrows, he offered a standard response: "I didn't mean to offend anyone."
Now, as he fights allegations of sexual harassment, Cain may be gambling the same line of defense will help defuse the biggest crisis of his candidacy.
"I do have a sense of humor, and some people have a problem with that," the Georgia businessman said after the harassment allegations first surfaced, explaining how his gregarious gestures may have been misconstrued.
Cain, who led the National Restaurant Association in the late-1990s, has acknowledged the organization made a financial payout to a subordinate who accused him of inappropriate behavior. Cain said he recalls an incident in which he stepped close to the woman to compare her height to his wife's but said the woman's accusations were "baseless."
A third woman who worked with Cain during that period told The Associated Press he had made numerous comments that made her uncomfortable and had invited her to a corporate apartment outside of work. She said he pushed boundaries with female staffers, eyeing their bodies and complimenting them on their looks.
"People have said he's a jovial guy. But I never knew him to make jokes like that," the woman told the AP. She spoke only on condition of anonymity, saying she feared losing her current job and the possibility of damage to her reputation.
Asked on Fox News earlier this week if he was the kind of guy who makes inappropriate comments, Cain said, "No."
"The only thing that I could be guilty of saying in a group of men and women is paying a compliment to the woman," Cain said, adding that he may remark about how a woman has "married up."
"If she changed her hair, you know, I might say something like: 'Oh, you changed your hairstyle. It's very becoming.' So I would make compliments to women in group settings like that, sure," Cain added.
Murray Schwartz, a New York employment lawyer, said some men accused of sexual harassment do successfully make the case that their attempts at humor had been misread.
"But with everyone being so concerned about sexual harassment, most employers don't kid around that way with the women who work for them," Schwartz said.
To be sure, Cain seems to relish the role of contrarian — one not bound by the rules that constrain others.
"I would bring a sense of humor to the White House. America's too uptight!" Cain declared at a CNN debate in September when asked what set him apart from his opponents.
Cain's irreverent sense of humor has been part of his charm as a candidate, conferring a likability that many find lacking in his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The two are now vying for the lead in several polls.
Cain has also used humor to deflect criticism, allowing him to sidestep mistakes or defend controversial comments by claiming he was just making a joke.
"Let Herman be Herman," Cain said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday when he was grilled about his campaign's unconventional new Web ad showing his chief of staff sucking a cigarette.
That ad was supposed to be funny, Cain insisted, and "not intended to offend."
He gave a similar excuse last month after being questioned about his plan to build an electrified fence that could kill people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
"It was a joke, and yeah, I haven't learned how to be politically correct yet," Cain told CNN.
Explaining away a column he wrote five years ago promoting golf star Tiger Woods as a presidential candidate in 2016, Cain again argued, "Americans got to learn how to have a sense of humor."
"There are some things that, you know, you just take kind of tongue-in-cheek, and you don't make a big deal of it. All right?" he told reporters last month about how he came to write the column.
Cain, the only black candidate in the Republican field, often makes light of that distinction on the campaign trail.
Asked if his rising poll numbers meant his candidacy was the flavor of the month, Cain compared himself to Haagen-Dazs black walnut ice cream, which he said "tastes good all the time." He said he likes to wear a gold tie because "it looks pretty good next to this beautiful skin."
But Cain has also relied on laugh lines to paper over serious gaps in knowledge, reinforcing the impression of a candidacy that came together on the fly.
"When they ask me who is the president of Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say ... I don't know," Cain joked recently in an interview, suggesting "knowing who is the head of some of these small, insignificant states around the world" wasn't important for a presidential candidate.
Associated Press researcher Barbara Sambriski contributed to this report.
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