Herman Cain: A Longshot’s Steady Rise

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Reuters / Hyungwon Kang

Once again, Herman Cain was in Iowa Monday, brimming with confidence as he pitched his presidential candidacy to voters. “This is where the vetting process really starts,” he told the crowd at a forum hosted by Iowa conservative kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats. “It’s been great.” Iowans have had plenty of chances to vet Cain, whose trip to the Hawkeye State was his 19th in the past year. And while better-known candidates are scuffling in Iowa or planning to skip it altogether, Cain’s courtship of the crucial caucus state’s conservatives is going smoothly. “At the moment, I think he’s one of the front-runners,” says Iowa Tea Party leader Ryan Rhodes. In March, Cain won a presidential straw poll in Des Moines, lapping a field that featured populist firebrands like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

Iowa isn’t the only place Cain is catching on. He won another straw poll at a Tea Party Patriots convention in February and topped a RedState.com survey last December. In recent weeks, he placed first in a Zogby poll of the GOP field and second in one conducted by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. Many Republicans believed he won the GOP’s ragtag opening debate last month, and on May 16 he notched the highest “positive intensity score” in a Gallup poll, a number that measures the strength of a candidate’s support against his or her name recognition. Early polls are a poor yardstick for measuring long-term viability; they tend to reflect the fervency of a hard-core cadre of fans. But Cain’s momentum is stoking suggestions that the guy most likely to shake up the sluggish GOP field is not one of the national figures that party insiders have pleaded to get in the race. Instead, some say, the X-factor may be the outspoken outsider who’s been in the contest all along.

Cain’s life story is the kind of Horatio Alger yarn voters love. “Nobody has a better American Dream story than Herman Cain,” says his communications director Ellen Carmichael. Reared in Atlanta, he grew up poor, became the first in his family to secure a college degree and then put himself through graduate school by working as a Navy mathematician. He climbed the corporate ladder at Coca-Cola, earned a reputation as a turn-around artist at Pillsbury and rescued the Godfather’s Pizza chain from the brink of bankruptcy. Those successes earned him a post at the top of the restaurant lobby, which he was representing when he sparred with Bill Clinton at a televised town hall in 1994. (Think of it as an upmarket “Joe the Plumber” exchange.)

Cain’s caustic challenge to Clinton’s health-care reform plan earned him a measure of fame among conservatives, and Newsweek hailed him as one of the “real saboteurs” of the proposal. (The magazine also hailed him as “articulate,” as Joe Biden’s defenders might point out — and, as in Barack Obama’s case, it’s true.) In recent years Cain, 65, has penned a few political and self-help tomes, served stints on corporate boards and hosted a nighttime talk radio show. His rags-to-riches tale, his business background and his stemwinding oratory have made Tea Partyers swoon.

The GOP’s elder statesmen are a different story. Charles Krauthammer derided Cain’s candidacy as “entertainment.” Karl Rove downplayed rumblings within the base that Cain could follow the path blazed by Mike Huckabee and spring an Iowa upset. Handicapping the GOP field, TIME’s Mark Halperin twice declined to include Cain on a list of viable contenders, which included Ron Paul at 2,000-to-1. (The omission prompted one of the screeching banshees at the conservative propaganda site NewsBusters to question whether TIME was racist.) He’s racked up nearly 130,000 fans on Facebook, registered some 10,000 unique donors in the weeks since last month’s debate, and attracted some 15,000 admirers to his official campaign kickoff on a sultry day in Atlanta. “This might boggle their minds a little bit,” Carmichael says of her boss’s doubters. “They may think it doesn’t make sense, and we contend that in any other year this wouldn’t make sense. But he’s got the right ideas for what’s going on in this country right now.

But despite the fervency of his fan club, the case against Cain is compelling. A political resume may have been a burden in the electoral backlash of 2010, but voters expect presidential candidates to have proven their mettle in elected office, not just the corner suite. President Obama, who Republicans call callow, was a U.S. Senator with an additional seven years of experience in the Illinois state legislature when he won office. Cain has never won a race; he was clobbered in his lone attempt, the 2004 GOP Senate primary, winning just 26% of the vote. While the U.S. is winding down a war in Iraq, weighing the speed of its exit in Afghanistan and engaged in a third front in Libya, Cain raised eyebrows when he said he’d share his foreign policy with voters only after he’s had time to peruse classified materials in the Oval Office. As conservative critics have noted, he hasn’t demonstrated a grasp of the fine points of international affairs, from trade agreements to the muddled quest for Middle East peace.“Reporters like to ding me that I don’t have any foreign policy experience,” he said. “Uh, does the current President have any?” But by Cain’s estimation, Obama’s lack of experience has cost him.

Cain’s camp has nurtured his image as a business visionary — “an economic genius,” Carmichael says. But his economic policies are fairly standard Republican fare. In his first two years in office, he wants to pare the corporate income-tax rate to 25% or lower; eliminate taxes on capital gains and their dividends; suspend taxes on repatriated profits; enact a payroll-tax holiday; make the Bush-era tax rates permanent. He is a self-made man who built a fortune and wants policies that would help him keep it. He backs swapping the income tax for a “Fair Tax,” which is in essence a flat sales tax. He’s also anti-regulation, wants to repeal and replace Obama’s health-care “deform,” as he dubbed it, and supports Paul Ryan’s plan to transform Medicare.

A natural raconteur, Cain delivers these arguments in a booming voice at a preacher’s tempo, captivating audiences with his diatribes against the evils of liberalism. And he has a tendency to go awfully far. “The objective of the liberals is to destroy America, make it mediocre, make it part of whatever they call it, this world order stuff,” he told a rapt audience at this year’s CPAC. “Stupid people are ruining America.” In an interview with the liberal blog ThinkProgress, he said he would not be comfortable appointing Muslims to his Cabinet or to the federal judiciary, because they might “attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government.”

Cain was not available for an interview Monday, but Carmichael downplayed the Muslim issue and said Cain had a long history of equal-opportunity hiring. “He grew up in segregation. He’s not going to be giving anybody a kind of litmus test,” she said. If his campaign continues to rise, his campaign is sure to face a few tests of its own.

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