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.
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.
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According to Politico, two women accused Cain of sexually aggressive behavior while he was chief executive of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.
The Washington-based daily political newspaper said 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 he was "unaware" of any settlement with the women.
"I hope it wasn't for much, because I didn't do anything," he said.
Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist who's close to the party's conservative wing, said 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."