When Politico first reported late Sunday night that businessman Herman Cain had faced accusations of sexual harassment in the 1990s, the frontrunning presidential candidate had a choice: admit his error or fight like hell against the story.


Republican presidential contender Herman Cain addresses an audience at AEI(American Enterprise Institute) for Public Policy Research on October 31, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

The political problem with the path Cain chose is that it requires him to have an airtight — and unchanging — explanation for his conduct that can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he is the victim of an unfair attack. And that’s not what happened over the past 24 hours.

Cain first denied any knowledge of settlements paid out to women who brought the allegations again him during his time as head of the National Restaurant Association.

But, in an interview with Fox News Channel’s Greta van Susteren that aired Monday night, Cain acknowledged that he was aware of a payout to one of the women.

“My general counsel said this started out where she and her lawyer were demanding a huge financial settlement,” Cain told van Susteren. “I don’t remember a number. … But then he said, because there was no basis for this, we ended up settling for what would have been a termination settlement.”

Cain allies — the likes of conservative radio talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham came to his defense on Monday — will likely dismiss the inconsistencies as nothing more than a misremembered episode from more than a decade ago.

But changing your story in even a small way leads to lots and lots more questions about what else Cain either got wrong or misremembered.

And even if there is no one single HUGE revelation from all of those questions, the more times it’s made clear that Cain’s initial flat denial was something short of airtight, the more cuts his campaign sustains. Little cuts — if there are enough of them — lead to a political bloodbath.

Cain’s problem is that by deciding to stand and fight the story, he’s left himself no third way — with apologies to Bill Clinton — that he can take to remain politically viable.

Either Cain beats back the story entirely — and Monday was not a good start — or he runs the risk of watching his campaign bleed to death. The next 48 hours may tell us which way he’s headed.

More pro-Perry ads go up: A super PAC supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) presidential campaign is going up with ads in Iowa and South Carolina this week — ads that will run as Perry’s campaign gets its own advertising effort off the ground.

Make Us Great Again PAC is going up with the ads as part of a $400,000 buy to introduce Perry to voters in the early states.

Like the early Perry campaign ads, which are only running in Iowa, the ads introduce Perry as a proven governor who has created jobs in Texas.

Poll guts of the day: Tucked inside the Des Moines Register’s new Iowa Poll released over the weekend is an interesting number.

Though Cain only leads Mitt Romney 23 percent to 22 percent in the poll, if you look at those who say they will definitely vote, that lead expands to 17 points.

We noticed this in the last Register poll, when Rep. Michele Bachmann was in the hunt; her supporters were much more excited to vote than Romney’s, despite the much closer overall poll.

So even though Romney is polling like a frontrunner in Iowa, enthusiasm remains a significant hindrance for him there.

A Democratic recruit in North Dakota?: It’s looking more and more like former North Dakota attorney general Heidi Heitkamp (D) will run for Senate, with outgoing Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) calling for her to jump into the race against Rep. Rick Berg (R).

“I am very close to Heidi Heitkamp,” Conrad said, according to KFYR-TV. “I have urged Heidi to run. I think she would be an outstanding representative for the people of North Dakota.”

Heitkamp would fill a big hole for Democrats, who have yet to land a top recruit in the months since Conrad announced his retirement. The fact that Conrad is publicly calling for her to get in suggests she’s giving it serious thought.

Still, Berg will be tough to beat in red state.

Fixbits:

Romney will deliver a major policy speech on spending Friday, which could be seen as an effort to woo the tea party.

The Justice Department will fight against a restrictive immigration law in South Carolina.

Rush Limbaugh stands up for Cain.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) won’t endorse a candidate in the GOP presidential field.

A super PAC supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has reserved time in South Carolina.

The new congressional map in Colorado is now in the hands of a judge.

A former aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) launches a super PAC.

Ed Rollins continues to make Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) wish she had never hired him.

Despite the long odds facing his son-in-law, Kentucky GOP Senate nominee David Williams’ (R) father-in-law plugs another $1.5 million into the effort to elect him.

Former congresswoman Dina Titus (D-Nev.) won’t seek a rematch with Rep. Joe Heck (R), instead running in the open 1st district.

Must-reads:

Prior experience and presidential greatness” — John Sides, Washington Post

Another ‘new’ Newt takes the stage” — Ed Kilgore Jr., New Republic

In N.H., technocrat Romney versus preacher Romney” — Dan Balz, Washington Post

Capitol Hill power player Fred Upton switches ideological gears as his clout grows” — Ned Martel, Washington Post