As GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain decried allegations of sexual harassment by a suburban woman, he insisted he "didn't even know" his accuser.
Yet, eyewitness accounts have him in close, one-to-one conversation with Sharon Bialek of Glenview last month at a Midwest Tea Party Convention in Schaumburg.
That misstep in Cain's and his campaign team's handling of the allegations is damaging the Georgia businessman's recent surge in the polls.
"To say that the Cain campaign is handling this like amateurs is insulting to amateurs," said Ford O'Connell, Republican strategist and former presidential campaign aide for McCain-Palin in 2008. "It should have never gotten this far.
"Essentially they've walked into a trap and I don't see a lot of ways out for them."
Cain "has complete amnesia and I think he believes himself; pathological liars usually do those kinds of things," Bialek told ABC News on Wednesday en route to a MSNBC interview in Chicago.
Cain, at a news conference Tuesday, said, "I tried to remember if I recognized her and I didn't."
Eyewitnesses point to at least one public encounter between the two.
On Oct. 1, Bialek, who obtained backstage access at TeaCon, the Midwest Tea Party Convention in Schaumburg, was spotted speaking with and hugging Cain, WIND 560 AM co-host Amy Jacobson told the Daily Herald.
Bialek said she asked Cain at the Schaumburg event "if he remembered me. I wanted to see if he would be man enough to own up to what he did 14 years ago."
The Cain campaign has not returned calls seeking comment.
Bialek said she had met Cain in 1997 at the national convention of the National Restaurant Association, where Cain was chairman and Bialek was employed.
Bialek said she contacted Cain to see if he could help her find another job after she was laid off later in 1997. She said that after a dinner together in Washington, D.C., Cain groped her in the car and remarked, "You want a job, right?"
Cain, who has never held elected office, began to surge in the polls early this fall, with his keynote address in Schaumburg only serving to stoke the local fire.
O'Connell points out that the former Godfather's Pizza CEO is attractive because of three factors -- his affability, his easy-to-grasp 9-9-9 tax plan, and his experience as a business executive.
Yet, "part of being a business executive is crisis management," O'Connell said.
Kent Redfield, political science professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield, said Cain "didn't know her" statements point to a lack of strategy and a junior campaign that was not ready for prime time.
"If you're serious about running for president, you get a professional staff," Redfield said. "The way you deal with these things, you make it a one-day story early in the campaign if at all possible. Say, 'This is something in my past. Here are some misunderstandings. I really didn't think I did anything wrong but I'm not the same person I was a decade ago.'"
Instead, by seemingly handling information as it continues to break, "it just keeps giving the story legs," Redfield said.
Since Bialek came forward, another woman -- Karen Kraushaar, who also worked at the National Restauraunt Association -- has revealed that she filed a formal harassment complaint against Cain in 1999.
"You hope it goes away, but if in fact there was a pattern of behavior, even if it was innocent behavior, ... you get this drip, drip drip sort of thing," Redfield said. "I bet people around him never expected him to be leading or second in the polls. They just weren't ready for the microscope."