Charlie Gruschow called Tuesday, eager to clarify the terms of his departure from the staff of Herman Cain’s Republican presidential campaign in Iowa. “I have tremendous respect for Herman Cain,” said Gruschow, founder of the Des Moines Tea Party and one of the earliest backers of the Atlanta businessman’s effort in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Gruschow re-affirmed his support for Cain’s candidacy but resigned his staff position because, as he says he told the campaign’s chief of staff Mark Block in a meeting last week, “my heart’s not in this anymore.”
By “this,” Gruschow meant the day-to-day business of campaign operations, which have been hampered in Iowa by conflicts involving some former Cain staffers. While the staff departures (Gruschow’s was the fifth resignation in the past week) generated some headlines depicting the campaign as “unraveling,” the situation for Cain isn’t remotely comparable to the sudden implosion of Newt Gingrich’s campaign last month, when virtually the entire Gingrich staff resigned en masse. Cain’s spokeswoman Ellen Carmichael called the personnel changes “growing pains” in a campaign that went from its official launch May 21 to a second-quarter fundraising total of nearly $2.5 million (and third place in the Des Moines Register poll) in less than two months. The candidate himself described the staff departures as “not a major hiccup” to the campaign.
“Turnover is a natural thing in any organization you’re trying to put together,” Cain told a Des Moines TV station during a weekend visit to Iowa. Tuesday the campaign announced a new state director, Larry Tuel, and three other new Iowa staffers, as well as plans to open its first Iowa headquarters office next week in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale.
Tensions and turmoil in campaign staff are hardly rarities in the world of politics. Gruschow didn’t want to point fingers -- he speaks well of his erstwhile colleagues -- but other Iowa Republicans did not hesitate to assign blame and name names. The resignations of Cain’s former top two Iowa staffers, Tina Goff and Kevin Hall, were “the best thing that could happen” to Cain, said one Iowa GOP activist, who said the pair were “hated” by many of the campaign’s grassroots supporters. Other Iowa sources complained of Goff’s temperament, and suggested that she and the campaign’s former regional director, Jim Zeiler, who also resigned last week, had sought to undermine Gruschow’s status within the Iowa organization. The perceived mistreatment of Gruschow caused “devastating” negative word-of-mouth about the Cain campaign among volunteers loyal to the Tea Party leader. Yet Gruschow himself remains enthusiastic about Cain’s presidential prospects, warmly recalling how he helped bring the retired Godfather’s Pizza CEO to speak at last year’s Fourth of July Tea Party rally in Des Moines.
Perceptions of trouble in the Cain campaign were aggravated by negative coverage of the past week’s resignations, including a Sunday story in Politico which contained a sentence about “swirling rumors between Cain’s staff and volunteers in the Hawkeye State accusing each other of affairs, homosexuality and professional misconduct.” Cain’s staff was incensed about Politico’s reporting, which cited no substantiation for the “swirling rumors.” As far as the accusation of “homosexuality,” that was perhaps a reference to the easily discovered fact that Scott Toomey, who served as executive director of Cain’s exploratory committee but is no longer on the campaign staff, was once treasurer of a gay-rights group in Wisconsin.
Some suspect the rumor-mongering was the work of Republican rivals attempting to weaken Cain’s support among Iowa’s influential Christian conservative movement. Opposition researchers and supporters of other GOP campaigns have been busy disseminating whatever negative information can be dug up about Cain, whose lack of previous experience in public office make him a tabula rasa in terms of a legislative record. Libertarian supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul especially like to paint Cain’s former membership on the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in a sinister light, while Cain’s support for the 2008 TARP bank bailout is also a frequent target of critics. Such attacks mounted sharply after Cain’s strong performance in the May 5 South Carolina debate boosted his profile in the GOP field.
However, while hostile attacks did little to damage Cain’s surging popularity, many of his Iowa supporters were discouraged by what several Republicans in the state describe as “missed opportunities” resulting from ineffective staff work. Steve Deace, a conservative activist and former Des Moines talk-radio host, said he doesn’t think Cain can rebuild his Iowa operation, and explained why. “You’re talking about a finite number of people,” Deace says of experienced Republican campaign operatives in Iowa. In 2008, “we had a record turnout [for the GOP caucuses] and 120,000 people voted. There’s just not enough activists to have version 3.0 of your campaign -- especially with [Texas Gov.] Rick Perry’s people calling now, and [former Alaska Gov.] Sarah Palin’s people have quietly put together a grassroots team.”
The entry of Perry into the 2012 race is considered a near-certainty by many Republican campaign-watchers, and while those same observers think a Palin candidacy less likely, Deace said he had been told by Palin’s top Iowa organizer that it’s “100 percent” certain she’ll be getting in, too. Either one of these big-name late entries would have a huge impact in Iowa; if both jumped in, it would cause a cataclysmic upheaval in the GOP presidential landscape.
Such possibilities highlight the fact that it is still rather early in the election cycle. The Iowa caucuses are seven months away -- Feb. 6, 2012 -- and seven months ago, few of the campaign-watchers expected that early July would find Herman Cain having raised more money than Newt Gingrich or out-polling former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in Iowa. What Cain has accomplished so far would have seemed too miraculous to predict seven months ago. Those who see the Cain campaign’s recent troubles as a harbinger of doom might pause to remember that five years ago, when he was diagnosed with cancer, the odds of his surviving were arguably worse than the odds now of his becoming president.
Today, Cain is flying to Las Vegas, where he will speak this weekend at the Conservative Leadership Conference -- Nevada is an early primary state next year -- and the trip will also afford an opportunity for his staff to gather and plan the road ahead, his spokeswoman said. After that, Cain returns to Iowa to open his new Hawkeye State headquarters, and open another chapter in his against-the-odds campaign.