WASHINGTON (AP) ? Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain went before a friendly audience of conservatives on Friday and pitched his trademark economic plan, eager to leave accusations of sexual harassment behind.
Cheered enthusiastically, Cain made no direct mention of the controversy that has dogged him for nearly a week. His reference was clear, though, when he said, “I’ve been in Washington all week, and I’ve attracted a little bit of attention.”
Cain has shot to the top of public opinion polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, but the impact on his candidacy of the allegations of harassment ? and his repeated denials ? are not yet clear.
In his remarks, Cain touted his economic 9-9-9 plan, which calls for replacing the current tax system with a business tax, a flat tax on personal income and a national sales tax, all set at 9 percent.
The speech came one day after he used a series of interviews on conservative media outlets to deny anew ever having harassed anyone sexually.
A new national poll indicated that Cain remained in strong position in the GOP nomination race despite the disclosures that at least three women allege he engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior toward them while he was the head of the National Restaurant Association, where they then worked.
Over the past five days, Cain has repeatedly denied wrongdoing even as he has given conflicting accounts about what ? if anything ? he knew about the alleged incidents as well as whether he knew about financial settlements two of his accusers reportedly received from the trade group. He’s blamed the mainstream media, liberals and GOP rival Rick Perry’s campaign, which said it had nothing to do with it. A black conservative, Cain has said his race has played a factor in the turmoil.
He was back in Washington on Friday, after spending a day in New York, to deliver a speech to the conservative Americans for Prosperity, a group aligned with the tea party movement that has helped Cain rise from the back of the GOP presidential pack in recent weeks. He also was meeting privately with his national finance team as the campaign looks to broaden a grassroots fundraising base that’s so far been driven by small online donations.
That includes what the campaign says is more than $1.2 million in contributions since Sunday when Politico first reported the harassment accusations.
Also Friday, the National Restaurant Association was to decide whether to allow one woman who accused Cain of sexual harassment to publicly address the allegations, despite an agreement that prevented her from talking.
Joel Bennett, an attorney for one of the women alleging sexual harassment, said Thursday he was seeking permission from the National Restaurant Association to release a statement on her behalf. Under an agreement stemming from her accusation in 1999, the woman agreed not to speak publicly about the episode she said occurred when she worked for the trade group and Cain was its president.
A new Washington Post-ABC News survey showed Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney running nearly even atop the field of 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls, with most Republicans dismissing the harassment allegations. Seven in 10 Republicans say reports of the allegations don’t matter when it comes to picking a candidate.
But in a sign of the possible danger ahead, the poll found that Cain slipped to third place among those who see the accusations as serious, and Republican women were significantly more likely than men to say the allegations make them less apt to support the businessman. The survey found that support for Cain was basically steady over the four nights of interviewing, even as new accusations against him surfaced.
Politico, citing anonymous sources, reported late Thursday that one of the women contended that Cain made a sexual overture to her and invited her to his hotel room during a National Restaurant Association event in the late 1990s. The report said the woman was livid and complained to a member of the group’s board later that night.
Also, the New York Times, also citing anonymous sources, reported that one of the woman complained that the workplace turned hostile after she alleged that Cain had made advances toward her during a work-related outing in which Cain and several younger staff members drank alcohol until late in the evening.
Cain’s rivals were focused on anything other than Cain.
Romney was delivering a speech about cutting spending in an appearance before the same group as Cain. Others, including Texas Gov. Perry, were appearing late Friday at an Iowa GOP dinner to pitch their candidacies to Republicans in the state that holds the leadoff presidential caucuses in just two months.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show, said “you won’t find any surprises with me” but otherwise refused to talk publicly about the allegations against the Georgia businessman. She focused, instead, on talking about the economy and taxes.
The furor erupted at a time when Cain had vaulted to the top of public opinion polls as a leading conservative challenger to Romney for the Republican nomination ? adding spice to a race already as unpredictable as any in recent memory.
For now at least, his political allies were rallying around him.
Late Thursday, a group called Americans for Cain released a Web video that, without offering proof, blamed liberals for the furor surrounding Cain and called the process “a high-tech lynching.”
The one-minute video maintains that liberals and the mainstream media can’t challenge Cain on the merits of his policies, so they’ve attacked him with the sexual harassment reports, just as Clarence Thomas came under similar scrutiny during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings.