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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?"