ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
One of the Republican presidential candidates hoping to beat Mr. Obama next November is playing defense today. The newspaper Politico posted an explosive story on its website last night about Herman Cain. It says that in the 1990s, two women accused Cain of inappropriate behavior when he was the head of the National Restaurant Association. The women reportedly received cash settlements and left their jobs. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: This was supposed to be a big day for Herman Cain, with two high-profile events in Washington. Several recent polls show him leading the Republican pack, largely based on the popularity of his catchy 9-9-9 tax plan. But instead of enjoying the glow of the national press focused on his surging campaign, Cain spent the day saying things like this.
HERMAN CAIN: I have never sexually harassed anyone, and those accusations are totally false.
KEITH: That was one of several denials Cain made throughout the day as his campaign apparently scrambled to respond to the charges in the Politico story. The piece was posted last night, and the Cain campaign quickly responded, blaming the media for launching, quote, "unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain." In a statement, his spokesman implied that Cain was being targeted by liberals who disagree with his politics. Then this morning in his first public appearance of the day at the American Enterprise Institute, Cain wouldn't address the issue. When someone in the audience attempted to ask about it, his microphone was shut off.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I really â if he's going to be at the press club todayâ¦
CAIN: I'm going by the ground rules that my hosts have set.
KEITH: Cain said he would take all of the arrows later at the National Press Club. There, Cain gave what was a pretty standard stump speech to a capacity crowd, and only when he opened it up to questions did the issue of sexual harassment come up.
CAIN: I would be delighted to clear the air.
KEITH: Cain said that yes, he had been accused of sexual harassment when he was head of the National Restaurant Association.
CAIN: It was concluded after a thorough investigation that it had no basis.
KEITH: Politico reported that two women received five-figure settlements after accusing him of inappropriate behavior and gestures. At the press club event, Cain claimed ignorance about any settlements with the accusers. He said he had recused himself from the process and left it to the general council and the human resources officer.
CAIN: I am unaware of any sort of settlement. I hope it wasn't for much because I didn't do anything.
KEITH: Legal experts contacted by NPR say it seems unlikely Cain would have been unaware of the financial settlements. Barbara Brown is an employment law partner at Paul Hastings LLP. She represents employers in sexual harassment cases. Brown says the existence of a settlement doesn't prove much of anything because there are many reasons a company might settle.
BARBARA BROWN: If these things go to litigation, they're very emotional. They're very time consuming. They're very distracting. And so lots of businesses settle matters even though they feel quite confident that they could prevail if it went further.
KEITH: But in politics, the facts of the situation are often less important than how the campaign handles it.
TODD HARRIS: Well, so far, I don't think they've handled it well at all.
KEITH: Todd Harris is a Republican political consultant, and he has experience with helping a candidate navigate a sexual-harassment scandal. Harris worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger during the recall campaign when the candidate was accused of groping women. He says the Cain campaign had a chance to get ahead of this story, when Politico first approached it for a comment days ago, but it didn't.
HARRIS: At this point, all you can do is get every bit of information that you have out there. Anything that is not already public, you should assume it's going to be made public and get in front of it.
KEITH: Harris says the more a candidate tries to avoid these kinds of questions, the more questions there will be. Cain insisted at the press club luncheon that there is nothing left to dig up, describing the story as a witch hunt. And then after taking a few questions about taxes and race, Cain agreed to end the event on a song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")
KEITH: Perhaps hoping that tomorrow he can get back to singing the praises of 9-9-9. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.