Cain hit as fourth woman accuses him of sexual advances

Alleged victim is first to go public with sex claims against Republican presidential candidate

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The US presidential campaign of the Republican candidate Herman Cain was thrown into even more perilous territory last night when a Chicago woman went public with allegations that he tried to take sexual advantage of her when she sought help to find a job when he was head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) 14 years ago. "Come clean," the woman, Sharon Bialek, said before a scrum of reporters in New York City after detailing what she claims occurred on a summer night in 1997 when she travelled to Washington DC to meet Mr Cain, a few weeks after she was laid off by the NRA's educational foundation.

Ms Bialek is the fourth woman who allegedly received inappropriate advances from Mr Cain, 65. She is the first, however, to come forward in person to make the claims and to offer specifics. Her allegations, while not proven, may thus represent the greatest threat so far to Mr Cain's otherwise thriving, if unorthodox, campaign.

Ms Bialek, who appeared at a press conference with the celebrity lawyer, Gloria Allred, said her visit to the US capital began with the discovery that she had been moved from a regular room in her hotel to a suite. Over drinks, she claimed, Mr Cain said he was responsible for the upgrade. She said his inappropriate behaviour came after they ate dinner in a restaurant and he implied that he wanted to show her the association's headquarters.

"Instead of going into the offices, he suddenly reached over and he put his hand on my leg, under my skirt toward my genitals," she said. "He also pushed my head toward his crotch." Ms Bialek added that she was astonished but that when she told Mr Cain to stop, he did.

The Cain campaign instantly contradicted her story. "Activist celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred is bringing forth more false accusations against the character of Republican front-runner Herman Cain," it said in a statement. "All allegations of harassment against Mr Cain are completely false. Mr Cain has never harassed anyone."

Mr Cain's troubles first began a week ago when the Politico website reported that two women employees of the NRA, which he led from 1996 to 1999, had accepted financial settlements and left their jobs after filing complaints of sexual harassment against him. Under pressure from the media, he acknowledged that the settlements were negotiated but insisted that the claims against him were entirely baseless.

"Mr Cain, while running for President, is actively lying to Americans," Ms Allred said last night. "Enough is enough. We have to fight back. That is what our client is doing here today."

She added that she had legal affidavits from friends of Ms Bialek, testifying that she told them of Mr Cain's sexual advances soon after he made them.

While Mr Cain has recently risen to the top of the Republican popularity polls to tie with the previous front-runner Mitt Romney, or even to exceed him, there have been signs that his support has weakened since the allegations were first aired. The damage may, of course, become more serious more quickly now that one of his alleged victims has gone public.

Mr Cain, a former business executive at Burger King and the Godfather's Pizza chain, is due to meet his presidential campaign rivals face to face for a televised debate in Michigan tomorrow.