WASHINGTON — 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.

CHANGING STORY

In a series of interviews over a period of hours, he offered several different accounts of what happened and what he knew.

On Fox News Channel on Monday morning, Cain said that if the association had arrived at a settlement with anyone, he did not know about it. “I hope it wasn’t for much,” Cain said.

Later, at an appearance at the National Press Club, Cain again denied the harassment charges and said he did not know whether the matter was settled, or how much it might have cost.

He ended the day with two  television interviews – one, his second appearance on the Fox network, and the other  on “PBS NewsHour” – 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’ 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 5 feet tall and she comes up to my chin. This lady’s 5 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 found nobody to corroborate her story. He said he did not know about a second accusation. “Totally have no idea,” he told Woodruff.

‘WITCH HUNT’

The allegations about Cain first surfaced Sunday night on Politico, which reported that two women accused him of inappropriate behavior.  The Washington Post independently obtained the names of the women and tried to contact both, but several emails and telephone messages were not returned.  

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 trade 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 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,” said conservative strategist Greg Mueller. “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, confronted with a problem, has offered an evolving and sometimes muddled response.

The candidate spent several days in mid-October 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, the 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.

Cain suggested that the surfacing of the allegations was the product of a “witch hunt” spurred by his recent surge in the polls.

RUSH TO DEFENSE

In further testament to his new prominence, Cain faced allegations Monday that supporters may have violated state and federal laws in setting up his candidacy.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that two of his highest-ranking staff members used a nonprofit group to pay for tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, including travel and chartered flights. Cain said Monday he was unaware of the matter, but would investigate.

The campaign-finance charges, however, were overshadowed by the more sensational allegations of personal impropriety.

Prominent conservatives and grass-roots activists in Iowa and elsewhere rushed to Cain’s defense Monday.

The head of the conservative Media Research Center, Brent Bozell, called the Politico story a “high-tech lynching of Herman Cain.” That was a reference to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ response to a former subordinate’s allegations at his confirmation hearing.

“In the eyes of the liberal media, Herman Cain is just another uppity black American who has had the audacity to leave the liberal plantation,” Bozell wrote on the conservative website Newsbusters.org.

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 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 of Texas 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.

‘A HIGH-PROFILE GUY’

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.”

– The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.