After travelling at lightning speed from being the clown in the tent to becoming its potential ringmaster, Herman Cain, the former pizza tycoon turned presidential hopeful, was yesterday fighting off reports that he was the subject of serious sexual harassment allegations more than a decade ago.
Mr Cain, who has astonished pundits with his rise to the top of the field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, admitted to Fox News that he had indeed been accused of inappropriate behaviour as head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, but he said he was innocent.
The putative scandal, first reported by Politico.com, came within hours of a much anticipated poll of voters in Iowa, who will be the first in the country to express their preferences in the race with caucus voting on 3 January. The poll showed Mr Cain in a statistical dead heat with Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, who has led most polls for weeks and yet seems unable properly to pull away.
Mr Cain's campaign would hardly be the first to be blindsided by insinuations of past sexual indiscretions. Sometimes they can be fatal, as former Senator Gary Hart will attest; he was considered a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 1988 until reports surfaced of an extra-marital affair. Bill Clinton survived allegations of impropriety in 1992 to win the nomination and then the White House.
Politico said it had identified two women who had lodged complaints against Mr Cain for making unwanted advances on them. The paper said that it would not be naming them for privacy reasons.
It added that the women had dropped their allegations after reaching financial settlements with the Restaurant Association which also required that they should make no public statements about the matter.
But Mr Cain, who became head of the association after stepping down as CEO of the Godfather's Pizza chain, was adamant he had been "falsely accused" and that the allegations had had no basis in fact. "I have never sexually harassed anyone," Mr Cain said. "Yes, I was falsely accused while I was at the National Restaurant Association," he acknowledged before adding swiftly that those accusations were "determined to be baseless."
The former businessman did not deny that financial deals might have been negotiated with the women in question but said that that had been handled by the association directly and he did not know the details or even how much they were paid.
"I hope it wasn't for much because nothing happened," he said.
That the express train that Mr Cain's campaign has become in recent weeks has hit tricky curves in the tracks is not in question. He himself admitted that it was a distraction he could not welcome. "Some people will be turned off by this cloud that someone wanted to put over this campaign," he said.
Whether Mr Cain, an African American who comes from Georgia originally, faces a full derailment because of the allegations may largely depend on whether more information now surfaces, possibly from the women themselves, or if the story quietly dies.
For now, however, it stands as perhaps the first real test of a campaign that so far has paid little or no heed to the accepted norms of presidential campaigning. Last week it released a YouTube video featuring campaign manager Mark Block speaking well of his boss while taking deep drags on a cigarette.
As part of its response, the Cain campaign took the risky step of evoking the case of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, also an African American from Georgia, who received a national grilling in 1991 for alleged past indiscretions in the office.
"Sadly, we've seen this movie played out before – a prominent conservative targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics," said spokesman JD Gordon.
Another poll in Texas showed Mr Cain in a tie with the state's own Governor Rick Perry. The Perry campaign, which has been sputtering unexpectedly for weeks, could be the first to gain from a collapse in support for Mr Cain, who has proved especially appealing to the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
Romney's rivals: how they fell away
Before campaigning began in earnest, Pawlenty's right-wing credentials and experience seemed to give him a shot at emerging as Mitt Romney's chief rival. But he never articulated a clear message, and when he finished third in an early poll despite heavy investment, he concluded that the game was up.
Bachmann briefly soared in the polls as the darling of the Tea Party. Then Rick Perry emerged – adding a strong governing record to ideology – and she began to fall away. She was not helped by a series of stunning gaffes on the campaign trail.
When Perry got into the race after a lengthy flirtation, pundits said the stage was finally set for a battle between moderate and radical Republican heavyweights. While he has a substantial war chest, he has performed disastrously in debates and seen his poll ratings plummet.