WASHINGTON — Herman Cain's effort to control the damage from sexual harassment allegations has raised more questions than it's answered.
While Cain has denied the allegations, his less-than-nimble series of responses could threaten his recent rise to the top of the Republican presidential primary race. Also raising questions about his executive management skills is a report that his campaign may have violated campaign-finance laws in borrowing $40,000 from a Wisconsin nonprofit organization set up by his aides.
"The challenge for a candidate who hasn't run for national office is that you have to expect that a certain amount of information about your personal and professional life will be brought forward, potentially even by colleagues in your own party," said Matt Schlapp, a former White House political director under President George W. Bush. "Sometimes how you respond to those charges is as critical as what those charges are."
Politico first reported Sunday that when Cain headed the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, two female employees accused him of aggressive sexual behavior. In the 48 hours since, some of his initial responses have changed dramatically.
In a luncheon speech Monday, for example, Cain said he was "unaware" of any financial settlement with the women, who left the association. But in a PBS interview that night, Cain said he was aware that a financial "agreement" had been reached.
While stingy with details early on, Cain offered a detailed description of one alleged incident in the same PBS interview:
"The only one that I could recall after a day of trying to remember specifics, was once I referenced this lady's height and I was standing near her, and I did this saying, 'You're the same height of my wife,' because my wife is 5 feet tall and she comes up to my chin. This lady's 5 feet tall and she came up to my chin. So obviously she thought that that was too close for comfort. It showed up in the actual allegation."
The controversy could expand; an attorney for one of the women says she wants a chance to tell her side of the story, according to The Washington Post. The attorney has asked the restaurant association to release her from a confidentiality agreement.
Republicans appear divided over the issue. Some worry that because the Cain camp knew the sexual harassment allegations were out there and wasn't better prepared to dispense with them, that raises questions about their political skills. It also could undercut the former Godfather's Pizza chief executive's emphasis on his managerial experience, they said.
"They have not handled it well," said Rick Beltram, a South Carolina Republican and former longtime party chairman in Spartanburg County. "He's backpedaled in a number of different ways over the last 24 hours. They should have immediately come up with a full answer."
Other conservatives have cried foul, accusing the news media of doing a "hit piece" on Cain, and predicting a possible backlash in his favor. Complaining that the sources in the Cain story were anonymous, Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler said, "There's really nothing, literally, of substance in that story."
Several prominent and outspoken conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, rushed to Cain's defense. Even a supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, one of Cain's competitors for the GOP nomination, said Cain was getting "a bum rap."
"So far, all of it is unsubstantiated," said Steve Jackel, a retired teacher from Lamoni, Iowa. "They are grasping at straws, trying to tear him apart."
However, Dan Madden, a business owner from Morning Sun, Iowa, said that he likes Cain and might support him in the January caucuses, but that the allegations of sexual harassment would turn him against Cain if proven true.
"I'd have to wait to see if there's any substantiation to the claims," he said. "If so, he should be disqualified."
Besides the sexual harassment allegations, questions have arisen about his campaign's finances. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported that a charity operated by officials of Cain's campaign might have violated political finance laws by borrowing $40,000 in charity funds to make purchases, including air travel, for the campaign. The Cain campaign has hired a lawyer to investigate the story, according to Cain Chief of Staff Mark Block, a co-owner and operator of the charity.
All this comes as Cain leads in the latest poll from Iowa, where the first voting of the 2012 election will occur Jan. 3.
John Brabender, a senior strategist for Republican former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a rival candidate in the presidential race, said Tuesday at a conference of GOP political activists that Cain needed to be placed under the microscope.
"Everybody up here cares about one thing more than anything else, and that's beating Barack Obama," he said. "Whoever is our nominee has to be well-vetted. And that's what I would encourage the Cain people to do ... so that you are vetted, and we don't get into a situation where you're our nominee and we find out things after the fact."
(Steven Thomma in Iowa and William Douglas in Washington contributed to this report.)
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