Cain forced to fight sex claims

BESIEGED by ever more specific accusations of sexual misconduct, Herman Cain was yesterday struggling to contain a media firestorm that now threatens to consume his improbable, but thus far remarkably durable, bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Mr Cain was due to give his first detailed version of events at a press conference in Phoenix last night, less than 24 hours after Sharon Bialek publicly claimed that the candidate had groped her in a car back in 1997, when he was president of the National Restaurant Association.

But well beforehand he left scant doubt over what line he would take. There was "not an ounce of truth" in the allegations and her account was "totally fabricated," Mr Cain told TV host Jimmy Kimmel. "I am not going to give in, I'm in it [the race] to win it."

Since the scandal broke a fortnight ago four women have now accused Mr Cain of making unwanted advances. Until now, however, he seemed to be unscathed, maintaining a lead in the polls alongside Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and acknowledged favourite for the nomination, and raising more money than ever.

Ms Bialek is the first of the women to have a name newspapers can print, and the first to come forward with detailed allegations. Indeed if her account of events after a night on the town on Washington is true, what happened was not merely sexual harassment but borderline sexual assault.

Previously, the Cain campaign dismissed the charges as a smear campaign by the "liberal media" or a leak to discredit him, engineered by staffers for his rival Rick Perry, the Texas governor - even that it was racially motivated.

This time, though, he has to confront his latest accuser head on, maintaining th at she had deliberately engaged the celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred to attract publicity, and that Ms Bialek, who had once declared herself bankrupt, had made up her story to make money.

The latter quickly hit back, insisting in a television interview yesterday that she had "nothing to gain" by coming forward. She was speaking out, she said, on behalf of the other women who had had trouble with Mr Cain. "It's not about me. I'm not running for President."

And for the first time, signs are emerging of real unease among Mr Cain's conservative supporters. "He deserves a fair chance.

But these are not anonymous allegations anymore unfortunately," said the New Hampshire activist Jennifer Horn, who last week condemned media coverage of the allegations. Now "he does need to take another step and answer a few more questions," Ms Horn told Associated Press.

Conceivably Mr Cain, who is due to take part in a Republican candidates' debate on the economy in Rochester, Michigan, tonight, could ride out this storm. But if his bid falters, the dynamics of an extraordinarily fluid Republican contest, in which Mr Romney has yet to be taken to his party's heart, may change get again.

This time, some strategists say, the beneficiary - in other words the latest "anyone-but-Romney" candidate - could be Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House whose campaign has been showing renewed signs of life after its near collapse early last summer.

Alternatively, either Mr Perry or Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, both of whom briefly soared to the top of the field before falling back, might be given a second look by voters.

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