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Image: Herman Cain
Shawn Thew  /  EPA
Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain responds to a question after delivering remarks to a meeting of Docs4PatientCare in Alexandria, Virginia USA, 02 November 2011.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/3/2011 10:09:41 AM ET 2011-11-03T14:09:41

Herman Cain and Rick Perry were engaged in a war of words Thursday morning over the sexual harassment allegations of Cain that have rattled the presidential campaign.

Cain and his aides are openly voicing suspicion that the former Texas governor and his aides were behind a calculated push to leak information about sexual harassment claims that Cain had settled as head of the National restaurant Association in the 1990s. Perry himself and his surrogates are denying Cain's accusation, and pointing to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign as a potential culprit.

"The Perry campaign needs to apologize to Herman Cain and his family," said Mark Block, Cain's campaign manager and chief of staff, Wednesday evening on FOX News. "The actions of the Perry campaign are despicable ... Mr. Cain never committed any sexual harassment. Period. End of story."

Cain turns to the blame game
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But Perry, speaking to the conservative blog RedState on Wednesday night, directly denied having any knowledge of a leak.

"I will suggest to you that there's not anybody in my campaign that knew anything about this that's associated with my campaign in any form or fashion, end of story," he said. "We found out about the allegations against Mr. Cain the same time everybody else did."

At the same time, Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for Perry, when asked whether Romney's team could be responsible for the leak, said "sure," noting ties between backers of the former Massachusetts governor, and the NRA — the trade group once led by Cain and where the alleged harassment took place.

The Associated Press reported that Romney's campaign said that wasn't true. A Romney spokesperson has not yet commented to NBC.

The back-and-forth accusations made up the prevailing storyline on Thursday, coming on the heels of an AP report on Wednesday that detailed a claim from a third former employee of the restaurant association. (NBC News has not verified her claims.) That report ignited the accusations by Cain of the different campaigns.

Video: Third woman says Cain harassed her (on this page)

Earlier Wednesday, in an interview with Forbes, Cain blamed a consultant who worked with him during his 2004 run for Senate in Georgia — Washington-based consultant Curt Anderson, who Perry recently hired. Anderson denies he was a source of the leak.

"I didn't know anything about this, so it's hard to leak something you don't know anything about," Anderson said Thursday on CNN. "I didn't know anything about this, I didn't leak it."

But heading into the fourth day of the controversy, Cain was working to weather the fallout from the accusations, which emerged as his campaign had just begun to reach a high point; a national poll this week put Cain in the lead in the Republican presidential primary, and other polls this week found him leading or near the top in crucial primary states like Iowa and Florida.

Cain camp tries to shift blame to Perry

Romney has largely sat back from the controversy, telling NBC station KUSA in Denver that questions relating to the controversy "have to be addressed to [Cain] and his campaign.”

Other of Cain's primary opponents have been more direct.

"I think it is because what I have proved, and what America is looking for, is a leader with a core of conviction," Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said when asked about the lessons of the controversy during a conference call with supporters.

But Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, in an appearance on NBC's Today show, disputed that the Cain controversy and subsequent infighting would hurt the party's chances of defeating President Obama in 2012.

"This issue and other issues are going to come and go, but at the end of the day, Americans are not going to believe that this president delivered on his promises or that the economy's in any better shape than it was four years ago," he said.

Video: Priebus on Cain scandal, GOP field (on this page)

In his most recent interview, Cain continued to decry the story as a product of Washington media.

"That is the D.C. culture: Guilty until proven innocent," Cain told the conservative website The Daily Caller, where Cain sat for an interview with Ginni Thomas, the wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In media interviews since the story broke Sunday, Cain has offered conflicting accounts of what happened during his tenure at the trade group in Washington. He later acknowledged knowing about one settlement but said he did not know how much was paid. The New York Times reported Tuesday that one payout was $35,000, equivalent to one year's salary for one of the women.

The Times reported late Wednesday that the lawyer for one of the women said his client had decided not to go public on the accusations against Cain. A lawyer for one of the women told the Associated Press his client was having second thoughts about speaking publicly, concerned about how the frenzied attention she'd likely receive will affect her career, her family, and her life today, a person close to the situation said Wednesday.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the accusations and the fact that the incident has become public is very unsettling to the woman.

The AP confirmed the identity of the women but is not revealing their names. But what can be disclosed about their backgrounds without identifying them reveals that Cain's two accusers moved on professionally and personally after their ordeals at the restaurant association.

One of the women continued her education after earning her college degree. She has handled political outreach and fundraising in the private sector and for trade organizations. She owns her own home, volunteers on community boards and serves on public boards in her county and town.

Video: Third woman might report Cain’s harassment (on this page)

The other woman earned her master's degree before moving into her current communications career. She started a media career in Washington soon after graduate school, working in the private sector and in the federal government. Her husband has worked as a lobbyist on environmental, municipal and health issues. And he's donated money to both Democrats and Republicans. They live in suburban Maryland.

Though trying to project an image of campaign business as usual, Cain appeared frazzled at times Wednesday and couldn't escape the questions that have dogged him since a published report Sunday night that at least two women had complained about his behavior while at the restaurant association and had been given financial settlements.

As the day began, Cain said, "There are factions that are trying to destroy me personally, as well as this campaign." He didn't say to whom he was referring, but he said "the voice of the people" is stronger.

Cain gets testy toward reporters

Cain was supposed to take questions after a speech to health care professionals, but he ultimately refused and left the hotel through a back door.

"I'm here to visit with these doctors, and that's what I'm going to talk about, so don't even bother asking me all of these other questions that you all are curious about, OK? Don't even bother," a testy Cain told a throng of reporters.

When pressed about the week's previous allegations, Cain raised his voice and said "What did I say? Excuse me. Excuse me!" as hotel security led him through a hallway jammed with journalists in a Washington suburb. "What part of 'no' don't people understand?"

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: Third woman says Cain harassed her

  1. Transcript of: Third woman says Cain harassed her

    ANN CURRY, co-host: But let us begin with the Republican presidential front-runner Herman Cain and yet another woman accusing him of bad behavior back in the '90s. Lisa Myers is NBC 's senior investigative correspondent. Lisa , good morning.

    LISA MYERS reporting: Good morning to you, Ann. This story has now become a feeding frenzy. As you said, a third woman has come forward describing aggressive and unwanted behavior by Cain , Another accuser who had wanted to go public with her story is having second thoughts. And Cain now charges that the campaign of an opponent, Texas Governor Rick Perry , triggered this entire political firestorm.

    Offscreen Voice: Mr. Cain , would you like to comment on the allegations?

    Mr. HERMAN CAIN: Nope.

    MYERS: For Herman Cain this story is quickly going from bad to worse.

    Mr. CAIN: So don't even bother asking me all of these other questions that you all are curious about, OK? Don't even bother.

    MYERS: But when reporters persist...

    Mr. CAIN: Excuse me, excuse me! What part of no don't some people understand?

    MYERS: The third woman to come forward also was an employee of the National Restaurant Association when Cain was CEO in the 1990s . She told the Associated Press she considered filing a complaint against Cain for aggressive and unwanted behavior but did not. Cain calls it a baseless allegation. Mr. MARK BLOCK ( Herman Cain Campaign Manager /Fox News " Special Report with Bret Baier "): Mr. Cain has never committed any sexual harassment, period, end of story.

    MYERS: But NBC News has confirmed that a third woman did complain to others about Cain 's conduct. That's in addition to the two women who officially accused Cain of improper sexual conduct and received financial settlements. What's more, a former consultant to the restaurant association, Chris Wilson , now says he saw Cain treat a female employee inappropriately at a Crystal City , Virginia , restaurant.

    Mr. CHRIS WILSON: (KTOK Radio/" Mullins in the Morning"): I was actually around a couple times where this happened. If she does go on the air and talk about it, I think it'll be the end of his campaign.

    MYERS: Wilson is a supporter of Governor Rick Perry . The Cain camp now blames this entire political firestorm on Perry 's campaign, claiming a Perry adviser leaked the initial story, which triggered all this.

    Mr. BLOCK: The actions of the Perry campaign are despicable. Rick Perry and his campaign owe Herman Cain and his family an apology.

    MYERS: A Perry spokesman called the charge both reckless and false. Cain 's campaign manager called on all Cain 's accusers to stop hiding behind anonymity.

    Mr. BLOCK: I would challenge anybody that has these statements to be made to come forward with the person making the statements. Face Mr. Cain .

    MYERS: But Joel Bennett , the lawyer for a woman who had said she wanted to get her story out, nows says she's decided to let him do all the talking. "She has a life to live and a career and she doesn't want to become another Anita Hill ." Bennett says he'll send a statement with his client's version of events to the National Restaurant Association today hoping the group agrees it does not violate her nondisclosure agreement. It will not go into minute details of the incidents with Cain , he says, because it's unpleasant and sensational and

    she does not want to do that. Ann: All right. Lisa Myers this morning. Thank you for your reporting. Reince Priebus is the chairman of the Republican National Committee . Reince , good morning.

    CURRY:

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