Politico had the scoop last night: “During Herman Cain’s tenure as the head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain, ultimately leaving their jobs at the trade group, multiple sources confirm to POLITICO. The women complained of sexually suggestive behavior by Cain that made them angry and uncomfortable, the sources said, and they signed agreements with the restaurant group that gave them financial payouts to leave the association. The agreements also included language that bars the women from talking about their departures.”

According to the report, the settlements were in the five-figure range, suggesting that more than unsubstantiated nuisance claims were at issue.

The Cain campaign only fueled suspicions with a non-denial denial:

Fearing the message of Herman Cain who is shaking up the political landscape in Washington, Inside the Beltway media have begun to launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain.

Dredging up thinly sourced allegations stemming from Mr. Cain’s tenure as the Chief Executive Officer at the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, political trade press are now casting aspersions on his character and spreading rumors that never stood up to the facts.

Since Washington establishment critics haven’t had much luck in attacking Mr. Cain’s ideas to fix a bad economy and create jobs, they are trying to attack him in any way they can.

Sadly, we’ve seen this movie played out before – a prominent Conservative targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics.

Mr. Cain — and all Americans, deserve better.

Well, swell, but did he do it?

Cain’s spokesman seemed to stoke the feeding frenzy by saying Cain “vaguely” remembered the claims. Really? He doesn’t recall being accused, for example, of asking an employee up to his hotel room?

The allegations, if true, could be devastating for a candidate playing to social conservatives by touting his business experience. Recall, he already has an unexplained financial scandal akin to Enron in his background. If it now turns out that he had another brush with liability, voters may decide he’s not the man to lead them against President Obama in 2012.

Penny Nance, head of the conservative Concerned Women for America, is demanding answers. She told Politico: “I think Herman Cain needs to directly answer the question. “Early in my career I resigned from a trade association for the exact same reason and with no financial settlement. I simply found another job. . . . Therefore, I know in a very personal way that sexual harassment exists and that it’s demeaning and painful. It should never be tolerated in the workforce and certainly not the White House.” I imagine a great number of GOP voters, especially social conservatives, would agree.

To the extent Cain never expected his campaign to take off, you could understand him entering the race with this issue lurking in the past. But once he began to contend seriously for a top spot, shouldn’t he have been better prepared to deal with this? (Politico says it discussed the allegations with Cain over a 10-day period.) Once again many GOP insiders can only marvel that he’s gotten to the top of the polls.

A neutral political pollster and analyst e-mailed me to say that if the allegations are true, “then a quick confession is good for the soul . . . and a political campaign. Avoid the drip, drip, drip. Voters have proven they’ll forgive.”

A supporter of another candidate mused that such an issue can be overcome if a campaign has the right people and strategy in place. He doubted, however, that Cain has either.

Cain will need to respond on the merits of the claims, most likely today, either at a program at the American Enterprise Institute or in his National Press Club appearance. It is true that voters may forgive much about a candidate’s past. But they have proven unwilling in most instances to tolerate lying. Cain should get out what he has to say quickly, truthfully and completely.

If the allegations are true, and/or voters don’t believe Cain, where could his voters go? Well, there is already evidence that Newt Gingrich is rising. But at least in Iowa one must consider the strong social conservatives Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Rick Santorum, who have hammered home their values issues, to be the immediate beneficiaries.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney doesn’t much care if Cain declines and Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum or even Texas Gov. Rick Perry rise a bit. So long as Romney’s share of the vote remains about 25 percent and those candidates to his right are carving up over 60 percent of the vote, he stands a good chance to win in Iowa and go on to the nomination.

Speaking of Iowa, one GOP official there, reacting to yesterday’s Des Moines Register poll, was already doubtful before the Politico story broke that Cain could keep up his momentum. He e-mailed me: “This is Cain’s peak. There is no way he can organize 1,784 precincts in the next 64 days. He hasn’t shown a willingness to campaign here.” As for Romney, he observes, “Romney still has a ton of good will from his visits, time and resources invested here 4 years ago. The narrative that Romney hasn’t been here is a false one, but none-the-less, helps downplay expectations here, so [the Romney team] won’t push back on it.”

If Cain — because of the Politico revelations or for other reasons — begins to tumble, those in the Romney camp wanting to make a full-court press to win Iowa may have the upper hand. Remember, if Cain only loses 10 percent of his base, Romney, according to current polling, would eke out a win.

The question for the day will be: Can Cain beat back the Politico story? If he can, he gains strength. If he can’t, the most volatile GOP presidential primary race in recent memory will get even more volatile.