WASHINGTON >> Presidential candidate Herman Cain said Tuesday that he never changed his story about sexual harassment allegations against him in the 1990s while he was the head of the National Restaurant Association, despite giving a series of conflicting statements in the two days since the accusations were disclosed.
A day earlier, Cain had said he was unaware of a financial settlement given a female employee in connection with allegations Cain had engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior. He later acknowledged he was aware of an "agreement" but not a settlement.
"It was an agreement. So it looked like I had changed my story. I didn’t change my story," Cain told CNN’s Headline News. "The difference between settlement and agreement, it makes a difference to me."
Over the past two days, Cain has admitted he knew of one agreement between the National Restaurant Association and a woman who accused him of sexual harassment. He has said the woman initially asked for a large financial settlement but ultimately received two to three months’ pay as part of a separation agreement. Cain also acknowledged remembering one of the woman’s accusations against him, saying he stepped close to her to make a reference to her height, and told her she was the same height as his wife.
He has said he is not aware of any other agreements or settlements with any other women, though Politico — which first disclosed the allegations Sunday night — reported that the trade group had given financial settlements to at least two female employees who accused the entrepreneur of inappropriate sexual behavior.
The Georgia businessman who is near the top of national polls in the Republican presidential race was in his second day Tuesday of damage-control mode as he looked to blunt the fallout of years-old sexual harassment accusations that surfaced just two months before the leadoff Iowa presidential caucuses.
He spent Tuesday much like he did Monday, hopping from interview to interview to defend himself. Cain has repeatedly has denied that he sexually harassed anyone, and has said he was falsely accused. He also has argued that the allegations are part of a "witch hunt." And he said "there’s nothing else there to dig up" — all but daring opposition researchers to dive into his lengthy business career.
The immediate political fallout was unclear, although the harassment allegations — and Cain’s response to them — have the potential to reshuffle the GOP race.
At least initially, conservatives rallied around Cain, likening the attacks on the Republican presidential contender to what they describe as the "high-tech lynching" of another prominent black Republican: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
The forceful early reaction to the Cain firestorm — fueled by racially charged rhetoric — suggests the Georgia businessman’s attempt to cast himself as a victim of the media and liberals could, so far, be paying dividends within his conservative Republican base, which will hold considerable sway in selecting the party’s nominee.
The head of the conservative Media Research Center, Brent Bozell, labeled the story a "high-tech lynching," evoking Thomas’ divisive Supreme Court confirmation hearings two decades ago, where he was confronted with sexual harassment allegations from a onetime employee, Anita Hill.
"I think the left is totally and completely terrified of a conservative black man coming to power and prominence," said Debbie Dooley, a leader of Atlanta Tea Party Patriots. "They are trying to do the same thing to him that they did with Clarence Thomas."
"It’s outrageous the way liberals treat a black conservative," fumed pundit Ann Coulter.
And Radio show host Rush Limbaugh said: "This is about blacks and Hispanics getting uppity … (Liberals) cannot have a black Republican running for office, can’t have a Hispanic, the Left owns those minorities, those two groups can’t be seen rising on their own."
But there is no evidence of liberal involvement in the disclosure of Cain’s allegations, and, in the fact, the revelations could end up benefiting his Republican opponents in the short term. The accusations against Cain, an untested newcomer on the political scene, could give more moderate GOP voters pause and could cause would-be donors to shy away even as Cain works to capitalize on his rising poll numbers.
The allegations against Cain came to light Sunday night.
Politico reported that at least two women who complained about sexually inappropriate behavior while working for Cain at the National Restaurant Association had signed agreements with the restaurant group that gave them five-figure financial payouts to leave the association and barred them from discussing their departures. Neither woman was identified.
The report was based on anonymous sources and, in one case, what the publication said was a review of documentation that described the allegations and the resolution. Politico said Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon told the publication that Cain himself had indicated to campaign officials that he was "vaguely familiar" with the charges and that the restaurant association’s general counsel had resolved the matter.
On Monday, Cain — who completed a round of Washington appearances amid a frenzy of media attention — labeled the charges "a witch hunt."
He said he was aware of the allegations made against him in the 1990s but called them "baseless" and denied he sexually harassed anyone. He said he had no knowledge of whether the association provided any such settlements, and he declined to address specifics of the accusations or the resolution.
While Cain seemed to benefit from an early burst of support in key quarters, the full impact of the charges is not yet known.
Women’s rights groups expressed frustration that, 20 years after the Thomas hearings, sexual harassment complaints had again been reduced to a partisan fight.
Erin Matson, a vice president for the National Organization for Women, said the women in question should be given the benefit of the doubt.
"It is deeply insulting that this is being called political," Matson said. "Sexual harassment allegations are always about a woman who is simply trying to go to work."
Still, for some, the desire to oust President Barack Obama could trump most anything else.
Sonia Conte, a 73-year-old retired accountant from Akron, Ohio, said the allegations about Cain don’t change her opinion of him: She is concerned that he has little governing experience and prefers former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"But I’d still rather vote for Herman Cain than Barack Obama," said Conte, a registered Democrat. Obama, she said, mishandled the economy and the end of the Iraq war. "Anybody but Obama."
Cain acknowledged the charges could harm his campaign at a critical juncture.
"Obviously, some people are going to be turned off by this cloud that someone wanted to put over my campaign," he said. "But a lot of people aren’t going to be turned off. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens."