NEW YORK (Reuters) - A woman accused Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain on Monday of improperly touching her in 1997, going public with ugly allegations that may create more trouble for his campaign.
Sharon Bialek said Cain made an unwanted advance after dinner together in Washington when she asked him to help her find a job after she had been laid off by the National Restaurant Association, which he headed. [Check out a slide show of GOP spouses on the 2012 campaign trail.]
Bialek, who identified herself as a registered Republican and single mother from Chicago, put a public face on a growing problem for Cain's campaign. The 65-year-old candidate quickly denied the woman's charges, saying all allegations of sexual harassment against him were "completely false."
At least two other women had lodged formal complaints against Cain when he was head of the restaurant association, but Bialek was the first to appear in public and make a statement before a phalanx of television cameras. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP candidates.]
Cain, a former pizza company executive with no experience in political office, has been leading many opinion polls in the race to become the Republican presidential nominee to face Democratic President Barack Obama in next year's election.
Bialek, appearing with famed celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, said her boyfriend at the time helped arrange a meeting with Cain to discuss employment after meeting him at a Chicago convention.
After dinner, Cain drove her toward the National Restaurant Association offices and then parked nearby.
"Instead of going into the offices, he suddenly reached over and he put his hand on my leg, under my skirt and reached for my genitals. He also grabbed my head and brought it toward his crotch. I was very, very surprised and very, very shocked," Bialek said.
"I said: 'What are you doing? You know I have a boyfriend. This isn't what I came here for.' Mr. Cain said, 'You want a job, right?' I asked him to stop, and he did. I asked him to take me back to my hotel, which he did, right away," Bialek said.
Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon said Cain, 65, had never harassed anyone.
"Just as the country finally begins to refocus on our crippling $15 trillion national debt and the unacceptably high unemployment rate, now activist celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred is bringing forth more false accusations against the character of Republican front-runner Herman Cain," he said.
The latest development came just two days before Republican candidates gather in Rochester, Michigan, on Wednesday night for the latest in a series of campaign debates.
At least three women have accused Cain of sexual harassment from his time as the restaurant industry's top lobbyist in the mid-1990s.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Sunday showed the percentage of Republicans who viewed Cain favorably dropped 9 percentage points, to 57 percent from 66 percent a week ago.
The survey was the first evidence that sexual harassment claims against Cain had taken a toll on his presidential aspirations.
A woman who received a cash settlement from the restaurant association in response to her harassment claim rejected Cain's denials on Friday. She said through her lawyer she was the victim of a "series of inappropriate behaviors and unwanted advances" by Cain in 1999.
One of Cain's Republican presidential adversaries called on Sunday for more information on the allegations.
"It has got to come out in total," Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "Legitimate questions have been raised and that information has to come forward."
Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul said on "Fox News Sunday" that the media went too far in covering the allegations, distracting voters from more important issues.
"The media blew this way out of proportion," Paul said. "There are a thousand stories out there and I think that dilutes the real debates, because (Cain's) views on foreign policy for instance are dramatically different than mine."