WASHINGTON — Presidential contender Herman Cain said Tuesday that political enemies determined to sabotage his White House bid were to blame for bringing to light sexual harassment charges filed against him in the 1990s.

Cain said a "smear campaign" had been launched against him by someone interested putting a stop to his ascent in the polls and thwarting his effort to capture of the Republican presidential nomination.

"Obviously someone is encouraging them to bring it up now because I'm doing so well in this Republican nomination," said the former pizza executive whose campaign woes were headline news across the United States.

"Are you being used to try and help paint a cloud and help sabotage my candidacy? That's all I would say," Cain told the HLN television network, a subsidiary of CNN.

"I absolutely believe this is an intended smear campaign," said Cain.

Cain, who has emerged as an improbable front-runner for the Republican nomination for the right to square off against President Barack Obama next year, vowed that he would not let the scandal to derail his campaign.

"We're not going to allow these distractions to get us off message," declared Cain, who in addition to being a businessman is an ordained minister who has been married for some four decades.

His response to the scandal appears to have shifted over the past two days, amid a media frenzy that engulf his campaign and overshadowed his controversial 9-9-9 tax reform plan and other policy programs.

Over the course of a series of interviews, Cain's position has shifted.

By Tuesday he had acknowledged that allegations of sexual harassment were made against him during the 1990s when he headed the National Restaurant Association, and that the trade group reached a paid settlement with at least least one of the two women who filed a complaint against him.

But Cain categorically denied that he had ever been guilty of making unwanted sexual remarks to women at any point in his 40 year long career.

The former CEO of Godfather Pizza by some metrics was considered the frontrunner for the Republican nomination -- along with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney -- after winning a string of conservative straw polls and topping various national polls of the GOP field.

But his campaign was rocked by the news report published by the Politico.com website late Sunday, which said Cain's accusers had said he made sexually suggestive questions, comments and gestures that made them uncomfortable.

The Atlanta, Georgia-businessman whose meteoric rise in the polls belies his the fact that he has never held elective office, said in a television interview Tuesday that the timing of the allegations in his view, was clearly meant to stop his campaign in its tracks.

"You and I both know why they're doing it, because someone does not like the fact that we're doing so well in this campaign and that I'm at or near the top of the polls consistently," Cain said in the HLN interview.

Prominent conservatives meanwhile rallied around him, backing up Cain's view that political dirty tricks were afoot.

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was among the first and most vocal conservative commentators to come to Cain's defense, decrying the "gutter partisan politics" that the revelation represented.

He also raised the specter of racism, saying that the sex based allegations invoked the "ugliest racial stereotypes" and was an example of liberal media bias.

"It's the politics of minority conservative personal destruction," he said. "...It really is about blacks and Hispanics getting too uppity."

Photo credit: John Trainor