The Guardian--The presidential ambitions of Herman Cain, the former businessman leading the field of Republican hopefuls, faces a dramatic test over allegations of "sexually suggestive behaviour" made by former staff.
Politico, the Washington DC political news site, reported on Sunday evening that Cain had been at the centre of complaints from at least two female employees during his time as head of the National Restaurants Association.
In response, the Cain campaign put out a statement describing the account as "unsubstantiated personal attacks" and "thinly sourced allegations".
Asked directly by the Associated Press if Cain denied the Politico report, campaign spokesman JD Gordon said: "Yes."
The allegations come as Cain has surged into the front ranks of the Republican presidential field despite never having held elected office.
The former fast food executive has been the surprise of the Republican contest to date, rising rapidly in national and state-level opinion polls thanks to his outsider credentials and pithy policy prescriptions to overhaul the US tax system with a plan he dubbed "9-9-9".
According to the report in Politico, two women signed non-disclosure agreements with the restaurant lobbying group in exchange for accepting substantial financial payouts to leave the association. Neither woman was named by Politico because of what it called "privacy concerns".
Cain led a buyout of Godfather's Pizza and helped turn around the ailing chain before becoming chief executive of the National Restaurant Association from 1996 to 1999.
Politico's detailed reporting stopped short of describing the incidents as sexual harassment and instead described them as "episodes that left the women upset and offended":
These incidents include conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature, taking place at hotels during conferences, at other officially sanctioned restaurant association events and at the association's offices. There were also descriptions of physical gestures that were not overtly sexual but that made women who experienced or witnessed them uncomfortable and that they regarded as improper in a professional relationship.
Politico says it pressed Cain and his campaign for a response to the allegations for several days, including a face to face street confrontation with the candidate on Sunday morning as he left the CBS News studio in Washington:
[Cain] was then asked, "Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life of harassment by a woman?"
He breathed audibly, glared at the reporter and stayed silent for several seconds. After the question was repeated three times, he responded by asking the reporter, "Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?"
In its statement to the media after the allegations were published, the Cain campaign said Cain was being "targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics":
Dredging up thinly sourced allegations stemming from Mr Cain's tenure as the chief executive officer at the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, political trade press are now casting aspersions on his character and spreading rumours that never stood up to the facts.
Since Washington establishment critics haven't had much luck in attacking Mr Cain's ideas to fix a bad economy and create jobs, they are trying to attack him in any way they can.
Cain's appearance on the CBS News programme Face The Nation saw the presidential candidate reaffirm an earlier incendiary claim that the family planning organisation Planned Parenthood "wanted to kill black babies".
Cain has an early opportunity to respond to the accusations publicly. On Monday he is scheduled to hold high profile briefings at the American Enterprise Institute and the National Press Club in Washington DC.