Herman Cain laughs at being described as “Steve Forbes with charisma,” but finds the comparison flattering. “That’s quite a compliment.… I have the greatest amount of respect for him.”
The former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and Atlanta talk-radio host notes that he supported Forbes during the publishing executive’s unsuccessful 2000 Republican presidential primary campaign, and Forbes endorsed Cain’s 2004 Senate bid in the Georgia GOP primary.
Now, Cain is on the verge of embarking on his own presidential campaign, hiring staffing and preparing to form an exploratory committee. The combination of Forbes-like economic savvy and his own charismatic personality has triggered a remarkable level of excitement around Cain’s candidacy. He emerged the victor two weeks ago in an online poll at the popular Red State conservative blog. Organized in an elimination bracket format, that survey pitted Cain against Sarah Palin in the final round and — although, of course, such Internet polls are not scientific — the result demonstrated the Georgia businessman’s appeal to the conservative grassroots. Red State editor Erick Erickson said he “wouldn’t put too much stock” in the poll result, but added: “I would say it is a good sign for Herman Cain that, being relatively unknown, he can generate that much enthusiasm for himself.”
If Cain is “relatively unknown” to many people, he is a favorite of Tea Party activists. When he spoke at this year’s Tax Day Tea Party in Atlanta, several voices in the crowd shouted “Run, Herman, run!” Three days earlier, after getting a standing ovation for his speech at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, Cain returned to the lectern to caution attendees against lining up too early behind any GOP presidential candidate for 2012 because, he said, “there might also be a dark horse candidate you don’t know about.”
Getting from “dark horse” to serious contender is a task Cain has assigned to a campaign team headed by two Republican operatives from Wisconsin, Mark Block and Scott Toomey. A major challenge is to overcome skepticism among political journalists. Even while acknowledging the growing buzz around the incipient Cain campaign, several commentators registered their doubts about his prospects for winning. David Weigel of Slate described Cain as a Tea Party “megastar,” but added: “The political class doesn’t take Cain seriously.” Jonah Goldberg of National Review recognized Cain as “a charismatic superstar on the Tea Party circuit” but said “it’s hard to imagine him amounting to more than an exciting also-ran.” Ben Smith of Politico called Cain “a compelling speaker” but said “he’s little known outside conservative circles.”
Despite the doubts of the press corps, Cain continues winning over converts among Republicans in early primary states. In New Hampshire, John DiStaso of the Manchester Union Leader recently reported that “veteran GOP operative and former congressional staffer David Tille has become active” for Cain, whom he met during one of the candidate’s recent visits there. The Politico‘s Smith took notice of Iowa GOP operative Tim Albrecht’s prediction that Cain “is going to have some serious legs” in that state. Cain’s supporters have already begun organizing in early primary states. “We have people on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and will soon have people on the ground in Nevada,” Cain told The American Spectator in an interview last week. “We are going to run a bottoms-up, outside-the-box campaign.… My strength at this point is the grassroots support that I have across this country.”
As for doubters in the media, Cain says, “The way we overcome that is to continue to build the ground game, and the aerial game — the mainstream media — it will come.” That kind of optimism reflects Cain’s own proven history of success. After graduating from Atlanta’s Morehouse College in 1967, he worked for the Department of the Navy and Coca-Cola before joining the Pillsbury Company in 1977. His success in managing the company’s Burger King operations in the Philadelphia region earned him the presidency of Pillsbury’s Godfather’s Pizza chain in 1986. Two years later, Cain organized a buyout of Godfather’s from Pillsbury and became the CEO. By 1994, Cain had become president of the National Restaurant Association and it was in that role that he played a key role in defeating President Clinton’s health-care proposal.
“An articulate black entrepreneur, Cain transformed the debate when he challenged Clinton at a town meeting in Kansas City, Mo., [in April 1994],” Newsweek reported in September 1994. “Cain asked the president what he was supposed to say to the workers he would have to lay off because of the cost of the ’employer mandate.’ Clinton responded that there would be plenty of subsidies for small businessmen, but Cain persisted. ‘Quite honestly, your calculation is inaccurate,’ he told the president. ‘In the competitive marketplace it simply doesn’t work that way.'”
Cain’s confrontation with Clinton made him a hero to opponents of “HillaryCare” and, as might be expected, he has been an outspoken critic of the “ObamaCare” plan Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid rammed through Congress. And, as evidenced by the Tea Party movement and the Republican landslide in the mid-term election, Cain says voters are ready to support an outsider to take on the establishment in Washington.
“People are waking up and realizing we don’t need more politicians, we need more problem-solvers,” he says. “They’re looking for someone who is willing and capable of telling the American public the truth.… This nation is bankrupt, but the people in Washington, D.C. right now don’t know how to get us out of this mess.”
Cain would be the first non-politician to win a major party’s presidential nomination since the GOP chose Dwight Eisenhower as its candidate in 1952. The formidable odds against him, however, do not discourage Cain who, in 2006, was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that had spread from his colon to his liver. He survived that and now, cancer-free for more than four years, finds inspiration in his survival.
“I happen to believe God said, ‘Not yet.’…That inspired me to run for president, because I believe that I’ve got to try to make as big a difference on this planet as I can.”
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