Washington (CNN) -- What did Herman Cain know, and when did he know it?
Over the past couple of days, the former pizza CEO's high-flying insurgent campaign has been thrown on the defensive by the revelation of sexual harassment allegations made against him in the 1990s. Cain's account of the incident has changed multiple times, leading to accusations of a half-baked cover-up.
Now political observers are not only debating whether Cain's unorthodox candidacy will be damaged by the story; they're also asking if his handling of it has taken a potentially bad situation and made it worse.
"I think this scandal could prove to be costly on two dimensions," Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller told CNN. "Cain's handling of it contradicts his homespun and honest image. As far as the charges themselves, if more details emerge about the women, including their race and age, Cain could lose a lot of support among core Republican primary voters who tend to be very socially conservative."
"I do not see him emerging unscathed -- especially given the next debate is only a week away," Schiller predicted.
"This is a case study of how not to handle" a campaign crisis, said political analyst Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
The story first broke Sunday evening, when a Politico report alleged that two female employees at the National Restaurant Association accused Cain of inappropriate behavior during his tenure as head of the organization.
On Monday, Cain forcefully denied all of the charges and said he was "not aware of any (legal) settlement." Politico, however, reported two separation packages in the five-figure range.
Later, Cain changed his tune, saying he did in fact know about a "separation agreement" in one of the cases.
On Tuesday, the candidate told HLN's Robin Meade that the agreement provided one of his accusers "in the vicinity of three to six months' severance pay." The payment was "not outside our guidelines for what most people get ... when they leave the Restaurant Association involuntarily," he claimed.
While the Cain campaign had first been approached by Politico 10 days before the story was first published, the candidate himself said he was only remembering many details of the incident on Monday.
"In 12 years, a lot of stuff can go through your head," he said.
Cain continued to insist he had done nothing wrong.
"I have never committed sexual harassment in my entire career. Period," he told HLN. "I absolutely believe that this is an intended smear campaign," but "we're not going to allow these distractions to get us off message."
Near-saturation media coverage of the story indicates otherwise.
"It's possible that somebody is trying to smear him," said CNN senior political analyst David Gergen. But "this has not been Herman Cain's finest hour," he noted, referring to Cain's shifting account of what happened.
"When you become a serious contender, you come under serious scrutiny," Gergen added. "Whatever is out there is likely to come to the surface and you have to deal with it."
Cain's insistence that he didn't remember much of what happened until more than 10 days after his campaign was first approached by Politico does "not ring true," Gergen said. "As a guy, when somebody starts bringing those kinds of questions up against you, you remember it and you have a clear memory because it's a dagger at your heart."
Gergen -- a veteran of multiple presidential campaigns and administrations -- noted that a number of questions remain unanswered, and suggested Cain get the full story out and "let the chips fall where they may."
"There's a very reasonable chance this doesn't amount to very much," he said. But there's also "a chance it does," and until we know the full story, it "will hang around his neck and damage his candidacy," Gergen added.
So far, however, a number of high-profile conservatives are sticking by Cain, turning their focus instead to the so-called "mainstream" media -- a perennial favorite target of right-wing leaders.
"It's outrageous the way liberals treat a black conservative," columnist Ann Coulter said on Fox News. "This is another high-tech lynching." That phrase was first used by now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose confirmation hearings also focused on sexual harassment allegations.
If the alleged harassment incidents prove to be minor, the story could ultimately help Cain "with ardent conservatives who believe the 'lamestream' media's out to get conservatives, especially black conservatives," Ornstein argued.
But Cain's inability to clearly spell out what happened from the start has contributed to a constant "drumbeat" of stories, Ornstein said. And "it's not going to end," given the way he's handling the matter.
"That's part of the problem (that comes with) changing your story," he said.
Cain shouldn't expect any help from establishment Republicans, who are rallying around former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Ornstein said. "They're going to stand by and watch him suffer."
"A lot is riding on whether any more details will emerge, particularly if they come from anyone directly involved in the original events," argued CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "If no further information comes out, voters will probably remember the last version they have heard, which right now is Cain's account. People who like Cain will probably believe him; people who dislike him may not."
But "all that will change if further details are made public -- which is what typically happens in cases like these," Holland said.
Ornstein said the story has the potential to knock Cain from the GOP's top tier and create an opening for another candidate to emerge as the main conservative alternative to Romney. Cain himself filled that slot only after Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped in the polls.
For "a long time," the big question in the GOP race has been whether anyone in the field is capable of emerging as "the anyone-but-Romney candidate," Ornstein said. For now, "the guy to keep an eye on remains Perry." He's "the only one out there who's probably got enough common sense to figure out when he's screwed things up badly" and has the professionals on his staff "who can rip more of the bark out of Romney."
Veteran political analyst Thomas Mann agreed with Ornstein's assessment.
"The only candidate with the means and resources to re-start at this point is Perry, and he would have that shot with or without this story," said Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank.
"Most Republicans can imagine Romney as a president but not Cain. So you keep looking" for an alternative, Mann argued. Cain -- a political novice playing on the biggest stage in American politics -- was "bound to falter" at some point, he said.