WASHINGTON — Suddenly beset by allegations of sexual harassment, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain on Monday labeled the accusations a "witch hunt" and insisted that they were "totally false."
"In all my over 40 years of business experience, I have never sexually harassed anyone," Cain said during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington.
The story of the allegations surfaced Sunday night in Politico, a Capitol Hill newspaper, and underscored the topsy-turvy nature of the campaign.
Just the day before, a new poll in Iowa, site of the first Republican caucus on Jan. 3, put the former Godfather's Pizza CEO atop the presidential field with 23 percent of the vote. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney followed at 22 percent.
But the latest story threatened to possibly slow Cain's momentum. According to Politico, in the 1990s, while Cain was chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, two women accused him of sexually aggressive behavior.
The Washington-based daily political newspaper said that the women left the association after reaching financial settlements with the group. The association, a trade group for the restaurant industry, has refused to discuss the issue.
After several early, arms-length attempts by Cain and his campaign to respond to the allegations, he confronted the issue head-on Monday, first in a morning television interview on Fox News Channel, and then at the press club.
"While at the restaurant association, I was accused of sexual harassment," Cain said at the press club. "Falsely accused, I might add. ... And when the charges were brought, as the leader of the organization, I recused myself and allowed my general counsel and my human resources officer to deal with the situation. It was concluded after a thorough investigation that it had no basis."
Cain said that he "unaware" of any settlement with the women.
"I hope it wasn't for much, because I didn't do anything," he said.
Cain's vault to the top tier of the GOP primary pack and his staying power has been a surprise.
Romney has been a constant. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry both have had brief moments in the sun, only to fall back, and Cain seemed likely to follow in their footsteps.
But in trumpeting his business background and lack of political experience, his message has resonated, particularly among conservatives and tea party followers fed up with Washington gridlock.
Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who's close to the party's conservative wing, said that the sexual harassment allegations should not be a big problem for Cain, as long as there's no more to the story.
"I think he knocked it down pretty forcefully," Mueller said. "He dealt with it in a way that people come to expect: upfront, genuinely and impassioned."
Indeed, despite the personal nature of the allegations, Cain maintained the upbeat, straight-talking persona at his press club appearance that has helped to fuel his success so far.
He opened with a story about talking to one of the veteran waiters at the club, who told the White House hopeful that he had served eight presidents.
"Which means I would be number nine," Cain said smiling, as the audience laughed on cue in the clear reference to his "9-9-9" tax plan. "Now some things you might call coincidental. I call it a good sign."
He ended his appearance with, on request, a song, and offered a few a cappella bars of "Amazing Grace."
In between, Cain repeated the familiar simple, plainspoken solutions that pepper his stump speeches and debate appearances.
A president doesn't need a rich resume in foreign policy "if you know how to make sure you know you're working on the right problems," he said. "When I went to Godfather's Pizza in 1986, the company was supposed to go bankrupt. I had never made a pizza, but I learned. The way we renewed Godfather's Pizza is the same approach I would use to renew America. ... Ask the right questions."
Cain laid the blame for the economic mess not on Wall Street, but largely on the government. Too much interference with business, he said.
And while Romney, who used to head a private investment firm, put together a 59-point economic plan, Cain's 9-9-9 plan would reduce the federal tax burden to just three levies — business transactions, personal income taxes and a federal sales tax.
Cain argues that his plan would raise the same amount of revenue as the current system but would be fairer and would help create jobs. Several analyses of his plan, however, have said that it actually would raise taxes on the poor and reduce taxes on the wealthy.
When asked how, as president, he could convince a fractious Congress to adopt any of his ideas, Cain said, "It's called the power of the people. By keeping solutions understandable, they will put pressure on so Congress supports that legislation."
Maybe. Recent events have shown how difficult it is to corral a majority of 535 lawmakers behind an idea. But Cain's more pressing concern right now is whether the sexual harassment allegations will create an air pocket that slows his upward trajectory and undercuts his growing support.
Early on, the Cain campaign blamed the story on the "Beltway media." Assuming his denials hold up, Mueller said that Cain might see an upside.
"With conservatives, you have an immense distrust of the establishment in Washington and what they would call the liberal media," he said. "It could be a backlash potentially in his favor."
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