Four years ago at the studios of WSB Radio in Atlanta, I interviewed talk-radio host Herman Cain, who had only recently recovered from cancer. He smiled as he vowed, “Death’s going to have to catch me, and it’s going to have to run fast.”
Cain is smiling more than ever now, and running strong with a Republican presidential campaign that has surged to national prominence since the May 5 debate in Greenville, S.C. In a Fox News focus group of South Carolina GOP voters following that debate, pollster Frank Luntz asked for a show of hands: “How many of you think Herman Cain won the debate?” More than half the participants raised their hands. Luntz was flabbergasted, calling the result “unprecedented.” Luntz then went around the room, asking what it was that made the retired restaurant executive so appealing.
“He’s likeable,” one man said, summarizing a key factor in Cain’s campaign that seems to elude pundits. For the past two weeks, the political intelligentsia has struggled to understand how the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, who has never held elective office, could have suddenly emerged as a contender in a crowded Republican 2012 primary field. It’s never been a mystery to Cain’s communication director Ellen Carmichael.
“When people meet Herman, they like Herman,” she explained in a phone interview a few weeks before the Fox News debate in which 2 million viewers met Cain for the first time. And while he had not previously been considered a “first tier” candidate, Cain was already known (and liked) by thousands of Tea Party activists who had cheered him at rallies across the country. He has lately concentrated on meeting Republican voters in early primary states — today he’ll make his 17th visit to Iowa in the past year — and building grassroots support.
“We’re like a family,” Carmichael said of Cain’s tight-knit Atlanta-based organization, which she joined last fall. Since launching a presidential exploratory committee in January, she said, Team Herman has now grown to about 30 paid staffers, a relatively small group for a presidential campaign. Cain’s team is clearly aiming to run a lean-and-mean operation, since they can scarcely expect to match the massive money advantage of GOP rival Mitt Romney, who reportedly raised $10 million in a single day last week. Nevertheless, Cain’s campaign easily topped its initial goal of 1,000 pledges this week for an online “moneybomb” and then immediately raised the goal to 2,500 pledges. This was part of an effort leading up to a noon rally Saturday in Atlanta’s Olympic Centennial Park where the candidate is expected to officially announce his candidacy.
“If you know me, you know what I’m going to announce,” Cain said last night during an interview on KDWN-AM in Las Vegas, where he was one of several guests on the “Defeat Barack Obama” radiothon organized by leading Tea Party activists. Another guest on the show was Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann who, like Cain, is a 2012 Republican presidential candidate with strong Tea Party support. As with Cain’s other rivals for the GOP nomination — including Romney, whom he endorsed in 2008 — his campaign has kind words for Bachmann.
“Herman really likes her a lot,” said Carmichael, explaining that the extra media scrutiny Cain gets because he is black translates to “a lot of empathy” for Bachmann, who is currently the only female candidate in the Republican 2012 field. (Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin continues to say she’s waiting to see how the campaign develops before deciding whether to enter to the race.) Cain has become accustomed to being asked about how race affects his candidacy, although he much prefers to emphasize his business background and “common sense” approach to issues. Yet having a black Republican challenge Obama is an intriguing possibility to pundits, especially considering how often the Democrat incumbent’s supporters have slammed conservative opposition as racist. That led Byron York of the Washington Examiner to speculate that many of Cain’s supporters believe he “could take it to Obama without all that racial baggage.”
That seems to be a factor in Internet news mogul Andrew Breitbart’s enthusiasm for Cain’s campaign. In a speech at the Heritage Foundation last month, Breitbart proposed a GOP ticket of Cain and Florida Rep. Allen West — another black Republican, elected last year with strong Tea Party support — as a direct repudiation of the racism charge. “The only way to defeat political correctness and cultural Marxism and multiculturalism is to aim straight at its head,” Breitbart said.
The odds are still against such a head-on confrontation. Political oddsmakers rate Romney and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as front-runners in the current GOP field, and some powerful Republicans are reportedly trying to recruit Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels into the race. Cain’s impressive showing in the South Carolina debate, however, has clearly given a boost to the Georgia businessman who always smiles when he describes himself as a “dark horse” candidate. He smiles a lot, and if any of the Republican frontrunners expect to beat him — well, they’re going to have to run fast.