Long-shot presidential candidates seek one thing in the early stages of a campaign: Traction. Herman Cain may have just won that.
By NEIL KING JR.
For months, former corporate executive Herman Cain has waged a ceaseless ground attack in his long-shot quest for the Republican presidential nomination. Dinner speech in Fargo, North Dakota? No problem. Tea-party rally in Jeannette, Pa.? Sure thing. Thirty days crisscrossing Iowa since January? Done that.
Now, since making a surprising splash in last week’s South Carolina Republican debate, the little-known, radio-talk-show host is getting what he laughingly calls “aerial protection.” Interview requests are pouring in, along with donations, volunteers and invitations to speak.
On Friday night, several hundred people turned out to hear him in Las Vegas. The same night, he won a Washington state GOP straw poll. On Monday, former UPS president Ron Wallace will host a high-priced fundraiser for Mr. Cain in the suburbs of his hometown, Atlanta. Three hundred are expected to attend.
Long-shot presidential candidates seek one thing in the early stages of a campaign: Traction. Mr. Cain may have just won that.
By just about any measure, Mr. Cain is an unlikely Republican nominee. He’s a blip on national polls, a newcomer to presidential politics and has never held elected office. He’s an African-American in a party that remains overwhelmingly white.
He brushes all that aside, describing himself at a recent rally as “the black guy who keeps winning stuff.”
At last Thursday’s Republican debate in Greenville, S.C., the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza earned plaudits with a breezy performance that took shots both at President Barack Obama and the other four contestants on stage. “One right decision does not a great president make,” he said of Mr. Obama’s successful calling for the strike that killed Osama bin Laden.
Boasting that he had never been elected, Mr. Cain nodded to his rivals—a congressman, two former governors and a former senator—and said, “They have held public office before.” Then he addressed the audience, drawing laughter and applause with the line, “How’s that working out for you?”
A Fox focus group held directly after the debate declared him the overwhelming winner. Conservative bloggers and pundits added similar fanfares.
Even some fans, though, say he needs to bone up more on a range of issues.
“Herman is a great speaker and makes a great first impression,” said Dave Funk, who has sat down with Mr. Cain six times in recent months as co-chairman of the Republican Party in Iowa’s dominant Polk County. “But what I don’t see yet is a great deal of depth on things like Afghanistan and national defense.”
The son of a chauffeur and a domestic worker, the 65-year-old Mr. Cain has managed to tap into his party’s tea-party fervor while preserving his establishment bona fides as a former corporate executive and onetime chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
While working on his master’s degree at Purdue, he did ballistics work for the Navy before joining Coca-Cola Co. At the old Pillsbury Co., he turned around one of the company’s worst-performing collections of Burger King restaurants. He helped rescue Godfather’s Pizza from near-bankruptcy, and served for years as head of the National Restaurant Federation.
More recently, Mr. Cain, who is married and has two adult children, has hosted a talk show out of Atlanta beamed across much of the South.
On the stump, Mr. Cain leans toward libertarian on fiscal matters, but on social issues is a more traditional conservative, opposing gay marriage and abortion. He advocates chopping the size of government and replacing federal income taxes with a consumption tax. In the debate, he said he was still trying to figure out what the U.S. mission was in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Cain said it is his delivery that distinguishes him from the pack. “I don’t talk over people’s heads, and I don’t use the usual political lingo,” he said, speaking by phone from Las Vegas.
He also has been one the season’s most frenetic campaigners, traveling to Iowa so often since the start of the year (at least 15 times, says an aide) that many GOP activists there joke that there must be more than one Herman Cain.
Suggesting the work is paying off, he won a straw poll among conservative activists in Des Moines at a March forum, where better-known 2012 hopefuls such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also appeared.
Mr. Cain says his strategy doesn’t require that he win any of the first big contests early next year in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
“But if I can finish in the top three in all of those, that would be a home run,” he said. “For a relative unknown like me, that would provide the momentum to keep going forward.”
Write to Neil King Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org