WASHINGTON — A Chicago woman accused Herman Cain on Monday of sexual aggression in July 1997 after she asked for his help in getting a job.
Sharon Bialek, who'd worked at a National Restaurant Association affiliate when Cain was its chief executive, offered a graphic account at a New York news conference of her encounter with Cain.
After a week of allegations and innuendo surrounding the Republican White House hopeful, she's the first of four women who've alleged sexual improprieties to attach her name and face to the controversy. Other allegations came via an attorney and in a complaint to the Associated Press by an unidentified woman.
"I want you, Mr. Cain, to come clean," Bialek said. "I implore you, make this right."
The Cain campaign quickly issued a denial.
"All allegations of harassment against Mr. Cain are completely false," it said in a statement. "Mr. Cain has never harassed anyone."
Cain has said for days that the flap is over and it's time to move on, but the latest complaint elevates it at a time when there's evidence that it may be taking a toll. A new poll Sunday showed Cain's support slipping as a result of the allegations.
Accompanied by celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, Bialek said she'd worked for an education foundation connected to the restaurant association. She said she'd met the charismatic Cain during several industry functions and found him "incredibly inspirational," even saying to him after one of his speeches, "When are you running for president?"
When she lost her job, her then-boyfriend suggested that she seek Cain's help. She met Cain for drinks and dinner in Washington. Bialek said they then were in Cain's car parked near the association's office, which she said she thought they were about to visit.
Bialek alleged that Cain instead "suddenly reached over and he put his hand on my leg under my skirt and reached for my genitals." She said he also pushed her head toward his crotch.
"I was very surprised and very shocked, and I said, 'What are you doing? You know I have a boyfriend,' " she told the news conference. '' 'This isn't what I came here for, Mr. Cain.' "
Bialek said Cain replied, "You want a job, right?"
She asked to be taken back to the hotel, which Cain did, she said. Bialek said she also was surprised to find that Cain had upgraded her room to a "palatial suite" at the Washington Hilton, where she was staying. Bialek said she'd thought she was checking into a regular room that her boyfriend had booked.
"Activist celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred is bringing forth more false accusations against the character of Republican front-runner Herman Cain," the Cain campaign statement said. "Fortunately the American people will not allow Mr. Cain's bold '9-9-9 Plan', clear foreign policy vision and plans for energy independence to be overshadowed by these bogus attacks."
A former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, Cain has offered a series of shifting accounts in response to the claims, first reported by the Capitol Hill newspaper Politico, that two women at the National Restaurant Association accused him of sexual harassment while he was in charge. They reached paid settlements with the group and left. A third unidentified woman made similar allegations to the Associated Press last week.
While Cain's campaign boasted that it had raised $2 million since the controversy erupted, a Reuters-Ipsos survey taken since the allegations emerged but before Bialek's claims became public showed that his favorability rating among registered Republicans had slipped 9 points, to 57 percent.
In addition, a 53 percent majority of registered voters said they thought the allegations were true and 44 percent said the issue made them feel less favorable toward Cain, while 1 in 3 Republicans said that.
Cain is likely to face questions about the issue Wednesday when the Republican White House hopefuls meet in Michigan for a debate sponsored by CNBC.
Doug Koopman, a professor of political science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., said that "among the Republican Party electorate, this is a tipping point. We're starting to see a pattern. I think this is the beginning of erosion for him."
Republican pollster David Winston said he didn't think that likely GOP primary voters were "jumping to conclusions."
"The electorate is following this election very closely and they are going to think through every piece of information that is put in front of them in the most thoughtful way they can," he said. "This is an election where everyone is concerned about direction of the country."
(David Lightman contributed to this story.)
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