People stood in line for more than an hour Friday at the Costco discount store in the Pentagon City complex of Arlington, Virginia, across the river from D.C. At the front of the line was the man they had come to see, who smiled and chatted cheerfully as he signed his autograph on the first page of his new book, This Is Herman Cain!
The exclamation point serves as a fitting symbol of the shock among the political class at how far Cain has come along the path described by his book’s subtitle: “My Journey to the White House.” The Atlanta businessman’s sharp rise in national polls since winning a Florida GOP straw poll on Sept. 24 has left pundits of all persuasions struggling to explain how a candidate so recently rated somewhere between “long shot” and “no chance” could have suddenly emerged as a contender. Even Cain — who has said all along that he was “in it to win it” — seems slightly surprised by how quickly he’s jumped to second place in the Republican field, edging past Texas Gov. Rick Perry and closing the gap with the front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Although he has “enjoyed a phenomenal surge within the last couple of weeks,” Cain told reporters after his Friday book signing, his campaign “has gradually built momentum” for several months. His stunning breakthrough last month in Orlando, where the Republican straw poll delegates gave him more votes than Perry and Romney combined, has kicked that slow-building momentum into overdrive. And the question now is whether he can sustain his surging momentum or whether Cain, who has never before held elected office, will become just another “flavor of the week” in the see-saw GOP campaign.
Cain’s recent rise came after conservative support for Perry collapsed in September. The Texas governor was a late entry to the field, announcing his candidacy in South Carolina on Aug. 13, the same day Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won a Republican Party straw poll in Ames, Iowa. Bachmann had become “flavor of the week” in June after a strong debate performance in New Hampshire. At Ames, she finished ahead of Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. (The latter quit the next day, having bet his whole campaign on winning the Iowa straw poll in which he placed a weak third.) Cain finished a disappointing fifth at Ames, behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and many pundits at the time were ready to write Cain off completely. Meanwhile, Perry’s entrance into the field seemed to rob Bachmann of whatever momentum she gained by knocking out Pawlenty. It took Perry less than two weeks to pass Romney in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, and by Sept. 12 Perry led Romney by 12 points in the RCP average.
Perry’s surge evaporated rapidly, however, as he stumbled through a series of three September debates. He made a creditable debate debut Sept. 7 at the Reagan Library, but his rivals drew blood with their attacks on Perry in the Tampa debate on Sept. 12. When the candidates arrived in Orlando for a Sept. 22 debate, Romney was already regaining lost ground in the polls. Some conservative pundits who viewed Perry favorably — as the best hope of preventing the more moderate Romney from winning the GOP nomination — were saying the Texan needed a strong performance in Orlando to turn things around. Instead, Perry suffered his worst debate yet, and two days later sustained a humiliating defeat when Cain grabbed 37 percent of the vote in the Florida straw poll. Cain’s astonishing gains in subsequent polls — his RCP average going from less than 4 percent to more than 16 percent in less than three weeks — came at Perry’s expense. Now the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, the “not-a-politician” candidate who began by humorously describing himself as the “dark horse” in the Republican race, finds himself in second place. Cain’s rise has been accompanied by increased scrutiny from a press corps that once dismissed his campaign as a novelty act.
Reporters from several news organizations, including the Times of London, turned out to see Cain’s Friday book-signing event in Arlington and heard him deny that he’s another “flavor of the week” destined to suffer the fate that previously befell Bachmann and Perry. “When people hear my message, and they see the substance behind my message, this is what keeps people engaged with this campaign,” he said. Cain’s message lately has focused on his “9-9-9” tax-reform plan, which would replace the current tax code with 9 percent flat taxes on personal income, consumer sales, and corporate earnings. No economist has yet produced an estimate of how much revenue such a plan would produce, but free-market enthusiasts have praised the 9-9-9 plan for its boldness and simplicity, “super-sized solutions for an economy with super-sized problems,” in the words of Stephen Moore of the Wall Street Journal. Free-marketeers have also applauded Cain for his outspoken criticism of the anti-capitalist “Occupy Wall Street” protests. The demonstrations in lower Manhattan are “just a distraction away from the failed policies of this administration,” Cain said Friday in Arlington, before crossing the river into Washington where he brought the same message to the Family Research Council’s Value Voters Summit.
Although the conservative Christians at the FRC event were presumed to be interested primarily in social issues like abortion, they responded with evangelical zeal to Cain’s pro-capitalism gospel. He did not hesitate to declare his opposition to same-sex marriage and also proclaimed a “no exceptions” pro-life position. Yet one of the most ecstatic of several standing ovations Cain received during his Value Voters speech at the Omni Shoreham Hotel was when he slammed the “Occupy Wall Street” protests as a misguided reaction to consequences of President Obama’s Keynesian economic stimulus policies. “Wall Street didn’t write those failed policies,” Cain said, after the ovation subsided. “Wall Street didn’t spend a trillion dollars. Wall Street isn’t asking to spend another $450 billion. It didn’t work with a trillion dollars, it’s not going to work with $400 billion. You can demonstrate all you want to on Wall Street, the problem is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!”
More than a thousand conservatives inside the Regency Ballroom cheered wildly and no one who has watched Cain speak to such a gathering can deny his unsurpassed ability to fire up a conservative crowd. By all accounts it was his Sept. 24 speech to delegates in Orlando that won him the straw-poll victory that has sparked Cain’s sudden surge. “Send a message to Washington!” he told the Florida Republicans. Two weeks later in Washington, Cain delivered his message in person and generated the same electrifying response. He didn’t win the Value Voters straw poll, due to a suspiciously strong showing from the libertarian supporters of Ron Paul, but Cain was a strong second, while erstwhile frontrunner Perry finished a dismal fourth and Bachmann was fifth. Santorum, long a leader among social conservatives, issued a press release pointing out that his third-place finish got him nearly as many votes as Perry and Bachmann combined.
While Cain was getting ovation after ovation in the Omni Shoreham’s ballroom, Santorum sat with his wife and children in the hotel lobby, talking to summit attendees one-on-one. During the September debates that sent Perry’s campaign spiraling downward, Santorum struck some of the hardest blows against the front-runner. The Pennsylvanian is one of the few Republican candidates who hasn’t yet gotten a “flavor of the week” moment and, with another round of debates Tuesday in Hanover, N.H., and Oct. 18 in Las Vegas, Santorum may be foremost among those looking to throw a few rhetorical punches toward the surging Cain.
Cain’s newfound momentum will be tested both during the upcoming debates and by increased media attention. He got an early bump from an impressive first debate showing in May, but his campaign was subsequently plagued by a controversy over his statement that he would not be “comfortable” having a Muslim to his Cabinet. Cain’s campaign has also gone through staff shake-ups, most recently including the departure of his longtime press spokeswoman, Ellen Carmichael. And he has gotten some criticism for taking time away from campaigning in key early states like Iowa and New Hampshire in order to promote his new book. However, Cain says he’s learned from his earlier problems, and insists that his book tour helps rather than hurts his presidential campaign. At the Arlington book-signing event, one reporter pointed out that Cain was standing under a sign that said “Costco Wholesale,” asking if the candidate shouldn’t instead be focusing on retail politics. “I’ve been doing retail politics from the beginning, and even before I declared,” Cain answered.
The story told in Cain’s book — of his rise from humble beginnings to success as a business executive, and his against-the-odds survival of colon cancer — is the same “American Dream” tale he shares in his campaign speeches. The book’s subtitle reference to a “journey” toward a famous destination also describes an against-the-odds American Dream. The protagonist of that story has already come a long way, and if he can go the distance from here, he will certainly deserve the exclamation point: This Is Herman Cain!