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Cain’s Damage Control Could Be Most Telling

Presidential Hopeful’s Handling of Allegations of Sexual Harassment Will Dictate Campaign’s Future

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
GOP presidential contender Herman Cain told a luncheon audience at the National Press Club that he has never sexually harassed anyone during his 40 years in the business world, describing the reports of sexual harassment accusations from National Restaurant Association employees as “false.”

As Herman Cain's presidential campaign spent Monday dealing with the fallout from sexual harassment allegations, it became increasingly clear that his handling of the controversy could put him in greater jeopardy than the actual decade-old charges.

"How a candidate handles a crisis is as important as the specifics of the crisis itself. You have two separate issues here. First are the actual allegations and whether they can be substantiated. So far at least, he seems to be OK here because no one has come forward and there's no proof other than one article," said one Republican strategist who has worked on multiple presidential campaigns.

The strategist added: "So far, he hasn't handled it well. If it's categorically untrue, then why did it take him almost two weeks to say that? If he knew nothing about it, then why didn't he push back harder when confronted about it?"

A Politico story broke online Sunday evening, detailing sexual harassment allegations brought against Cain in the late 1990s by two employees of the National Restaurant Association during the Georgia Republican's tenure as president and CEO. The association compensated the unnamed women financially, and no criminal charges were ever brought against Cain, who left the industry lobbying organization in 1999.

The Cain campaign's initial reaction appeared inconsistent and less than transparent, both in the Politico story and during several media appearances Monday. While Cain forcefully and categorically denied the allegations, by the end of the day it became clear he knew more than what he first said about the allegations.

He told a luncheon audience at the National Press Club that he has never sexually harassed anyone during his 40 years in the business world, describing the accusations from NRA employees as "false."

"I have never sexually harassed anyone, and those allegations are totally false," a typically relaxed and good-natured Cain said during a question-and-answer session. "We have no idea the source of this witch hunt, which is exactly what it is."

The charges come as Cain finds himself riding high in the polls, nationally and in some of the key early primary states. The Georgian was No. 1 in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, with 25 percent former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was second at 24.3 percent. Cain also led in the average of Iowa polls, garnering 27 percent to Romney's 22.4 percent, and in South Carolina, receiving 28.7 percent to Romney's 23 percent.

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