Cain scandal deepens as 3rd woman comes forward

Cain scandal deepens as 3rd woman comes forward

WASHINGTON –The Associated Press
Cain scandal deepens as 3rd woman comes forward

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain holds up a muffin that has his catch-phrase 9-9-9 tax plan printed on it, before speaking at the National Press Club in Washington. AP photo

The sexual harassment scandal surrounding Herman Cain, a leading Republican presidential candidate, deepened as another woman accused him of inappropriate behavior when he headed a restaurant industry lobbying group in the 1990s.

The woman's account, told to The Associated Press, came as Cain tried unsuccessfully to divert attention from the controversy, responding testily to reporters who had pressed him about the original accusations.

The scandal has jolted the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, in which Cain, a former pizza chain executive and political novice, has upended the establishment by climbing to the top of opinion polls.

Cain appeals to some conservatives because he is a political outsider at a time of anti-Washington sentiment. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama appears vulnerable in 2012 because weak growth in the U.S. economy has kept unemployment high and depressed job creation.

But the allegations against Cain could threaten his standing near the front of the Republican field, which is just two months away from thinning out after early January contests in the traditional leadoff states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

The woman who came forward Wednesday said he made sexually suggestive remarks or gestures about the same time that two co-workers at the National Restaurant Association had settled separate harassment complaints against Cain.

She described in conversations with the AP situations in which she said Cain told her that he had confided to colleagues how attractive she was and invited her to his corporate apartment outside work.

She said she did not file a formal complaint against Cain because she began having fewer interactions with him and because her co-workers had already come forward.

The woman spoke only on condition of anonymity, saying she feared losing her current job and the possibility of damage to her reputation. The AP confirmed that she worked at the restaurant association with Cain during the period in question, that she has no party affiliation in her voter registration in the past decade and is not identified as a donor in federal campaigns or local political campaigns. Records show she was registered as a Democrat at one point previously.

Cain's campaign denied anew that he'd done anything wrong, decried a "smear campaign" as he is riding high in opinion polls and accused rival Rick Perry's operation of being behind the original stories.

Perry's campaign denied any involvement and suggested the campaign of yet another candidate, Mitt Romney, might be a source. Romney's campaign said that wasn't true.

The Republican Party chairman chimed in Thursday on the Cain-Perry spat, saying he doesn't know "what's true and what's not" about the crossfire between the two campaigns.

But Priebus also told NBC"s "Today" show that he thought the Cain controversy was a fleeting thing. He also said he didn't believe it would hurt the Republican Party's chances of defeating Obama.

The candidates are scrambling to win endorsements from lawmakers who are influential in their home districts. Romney leads with 33 current members of Congress. Perry, the Texas governor who declared his candidacy only two months ago, has chalked up at least 14, according to both campaigns.

Cain has only a fledgling campaign presence after his meteoric rise in the polls in recent weeks, but was in Washington on Wednesday working to build a following. Other candidates with backgrounds as lawmakers themselves have tiny corps of supporters.

In Washington, Cain dodged reporters' questions Wednesday as he tried unsuccessfully to divert attention from the scandal. He got testy with reporters and continued to denied any wrongdoing after reports surfaced that he faced sexual harassment accusation from two women when he was the head of the National Restaurant Association.

Confronted by reporters after he left a speech to health care professionals in Virginia, Cain told them "don't even bother" asking about the scandal.

The two women whose cases were first reported are barred from publicly giving their accounts by confidentiality agreements they signed in exchange for financial settlements from the trade group. On Wednesday, Cain was under pressure to ask the group to release the women from those agreements.