Herman Cain on Monday called accusations of harassment from two former employees “totally baseless and totally false,” moving aggressively to knock down allegations that could jeopardize his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Cain verified that one formal sexual harassment complaint had been filed by a female subordinate while he was head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s and that the group had paid her an undisclosed financial settlement.

But his acknowledgment came at the end of a rare day of campaigning in Washington in which he offered several conflicting accounts of the allegations in a Politico report, even as he emphatically denied that he had ever sexually harassed anyone in his life.

Cain began the day muttering only a quiet “good morning” to a swarm of reporters before an appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, where he kept his message focused on his signature “9-9-9” tax plan.

After a luncheon policy speech at the National Press Club, Cain wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and said that he “would be delighted to clear the air.” In response to a question, he confirmed that there had been an allegation of sexual harassment but said he was “unaware of any settlement.”

Then Cain ended the day with two sit-down television interviews in which he described an encounter with one woman in detail, confirmed that she was paid a financial settlement and speculated about how much she received.

Asked by PBS’s Judy Woodruff whether he might have behaved inappropriately, Cain said: “In my opinion, no. But as you would imagine, it’s in the eye of the person who thinks that maybe I crossed the line.”

Cain was referring to the encounter that he said had led to a formal complaint.

“I referenced this lady’s height, and I was standing near her, and I did this saying, ‘You’re the same height of my wife,’ because my wife is five feet tall and she comes up to my chin. This lady’s five feet tall and she came up to my chin,” Cain told Woodruff.

“Obviously she thought that that was too close for comfort. It showed up in the actual allegation. But at the time when I did that, you know, it was in my office, the door was wide open, and my secretary was sitting right there, and we were standing there and I made the little gesture.”

Cain said this accusation was later determined to be “baseless” after the woman did not find anyone to corroborate her story. He said he did not know about a second accusation. “Totally have no idea,” he told Woodruff.

The allegations about Cain first surfaced Sunday night on Politico, which reported that two women accused him of inappropriate behavior. Politico did not identify the two women, and neither spoke publicly on Monday.

The Washington Post independently obtained the names of the women and tried to contact both, but several e-mails and telephone messages were not returned. A man who answered the door at the Maryland home of one of the women said they had “nothing to say.”

Unanswered questions

Several key questions remained unanswered Monday night, including the full nature of the alleged encounters, the results of any internal inquiries and the resolutions that the women reached with the National Restaurant Association. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the association said it would not comment on “personnel issues,” citing a “long-standing policy.”

“It’s hard to make a judgment on these things without knowing the facts,” said Charlie Black, a longtime Republican presidential strategist. “I suspect we’ll be in a feeding frenzy for a few days until the evidence weighs down on one side or the other.”

Other veteran strategists said that the way Cain handles the fallout could tell voters more about his character and trustworthiness than the accusations themselves.

“He’s forceful, he’s front and center, knocking it down,” conservative strategist Greg Mueller said. “Frankly, unless someone comes forward, or there’s some kind of conflict in his forceful knock-down of the story, I don’t know that it’s going to have legs for much longer.”

This is not the first time that Cain, when confronted with a problem, has offered an evolving and sometimes muddled response. The candidate spent several days in mid-October, for instance, explaining his opposition on abortion after he alarmed social conservatives by suggesting in a CNN interview that terminating a pregnancy is a personal decision.

The scrutiny comes as Cain, a former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive and political novice, has soared to front-runner status in the GOP presidential contest on the strength of his economic plan and folksy demeanor.

He pledged that there were no other harassment claims that could surface later. “In all of my over 40 years of business experience running businesses and corporations, I have never sexually harassed anyone,” he said at the National Press Club.

He suggested that the surfacing of the allegations was the product of a “witch hunt” spurred by his recent surge in the polls, which put “this bull’s-eye on my back.”

Conservatives defend Cain

Prominent conservatives and grass-roots activists in Iowa and elsewhere rushed to Cain’s defense on Monday. Commentator Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show that “the mainstream media have launched an unconscionable, racially stereotypical attack on an independent, self-reliant conservative black.” Commentator Laura Ingraham suggested that the story was an effort to put Cain “in his place . . . the back of the bus” and encouraged one caller who suggested picketing Politico’s offices.

In Iowa, Cain’s campaign chairman, Steve Grubbs, said that the “distraction” was not slowing Cain’s efforts to build a field organization and that the campaign had signed up new volunteer precinct captains for the Jan. 3 caucuses. “We don’t have anyone who’s rattled by it,” Grubbs said.

Cain is winning the hearts of conservative activists in Iowa, as he has nationally. A Des Moines Register poll of likely caucus voters published this weekend showed Cain effectively tied for the lead with Mitt Romney, 23 percent to 22 percent, with Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) in third place with 12 percent.

Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said conservative activists are willing to give Cain the benefit of the doubt. “If he comes in and puts all his cards on the line and there’s nothing there, he probably doesn’t lose any support over it,” he said.

Throughout the campaign, Cain’s wife, Gloria, has stayed out of the spotlight. No one answered the door Monday morning at the family’s house, a handsome brick rancher in an upscale gated community in McDonough, Ga., about 20 miles south of Atlanta.

Meanwhile, Cain’s former business associates defended him in interviews Monday, calling the allegations out of character.

“The whole time I’ve known Herman, I’ve never heard of anybody saying anything about sexual harassment,” said Spencer Wiggins, who worked with Cain at Burger King in the early 1980s and later headed human resources under Cain at Godfather’s Pizza.

“He would do nothing to abuse his position,” said Larry Corbin, a retired executive at sausage-maker Bob Evans, who served on the restaurant association’s board during Cain’s tenure. “He’s a high-profile guy, and when you get to be in that position, a lot of times you have stones thrown at you.”

Staff writers Sandhya Somashekhar, Brady Dennis, Krissah Thompson, Perry Bacon Jr., Karen Tumulty and Michael S. Rosenwald; staff writer Laura Vozzella in McDonough, Ga.; and news researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.