The Mystery of the Missing Presidential Campaign: Cain Operation MIA in Key States

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William B. Plowman / NBC NewsWire / Getty Images

Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain appears on "Meet the Press" Oct. 16, 2011 in Washington.

In early October, as Herman Cain caught fire in national polls and began to climb into the first tier of the Republican presidential race, the ex-CEO turned insurgent candidate puzzled political observers by diverting his campaign to promote a book entitled This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House. Cain’s critics alleged that his publicity tour wasn’t really about selling the idea of a Cain Presidency to voters, but rather peddling motivational pamphlets–“Leadership Requires Leadership” is available for $5 at “The Herminator Experience” website—and inflating the value of his services on the speaking circuit.

A series of interviews with key party figures may lend further credence to this charge. Well-connected GOP operatives in New Hampshire, Florida and South Carolina say they see little or no evidence of Cain’s campaign in those key early primary states, and some are even unable to name who is leading his localized efforts just a little more than two months before voters are expected to cast the first ballots.

“There is no sense of a tangible organization that you can point to,” says Rich Killion, an uncommitted GOP strategist in New Hampshire, who’s unsure of the location of Cain’s Granite State base of operations, or even if there is one. “If you said, ‘Rich, tell me who is running the effort here?’ I could not even give you that person.” Matt Murphy, Cain’s original state director, resigned in June.

“There is good will towards him, but there is almost no organization to speak of,” says Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “If there is a local group who wanted to invite him to speak, it is unclear whom to call. I gather that they are adding staff and ramping up, but the primary is in two and a half months.”

A prominent Republican operative in Florida says the Cain campaign is similarly invisible in his state. “If somebody called here and asked to volunteer for Cain, I would not know whom to talk to,” he says. Cain won a major Florida straw poll in late September, but he’s been largely absent ever since. “He came and worked the crowd. He got a few state reps. to endorse him” and then he left, the operative says. “It boggles the mind. I don’t know any of the usual suspects who have been called, asked or much less hired. There is no grassroots. The guys in key counties, none of them are getting talked to.”

“We see nothing to resemble a real campaign,” says another GOP operative, who is based in South Carolina and knows of only one Cain staffer there.  According to him, both of South Carolina’s U.S. Senators and one member of its House delegation sought assistance with reaching out to Cain, but the strategist said he’s been unable to get the campaign to respond.

None of the GOP strategists interviewed by TIME have endorsed any of Cain’s opponents, but most requested anonymity to avoid conflict with the surging candidate’s campaign.

Cain has established a limited presence in select states. Campaign spokesman J.D. Gordon says Cain has hired more than 40 staffers overall, including former Iowa GOP Chairman Steve Grubbs to spearhead his efforts in the Hawkeye State. In Nevada, one in-the-know Republican says he has seen a vigorous volunteer effort to identify and motivate potential Cain voters all over the state.

Even so, Cain’s campaign appears infinitesimal compared with those of his top rivals. Killion describes a “seismic difference” between Cain’s New Hampshire operation and Mitt Romney’s Manchester outfit, which is staffed with relatively well-known state co-chairs, advisers and directors.

Scott Plakon, one of the Florida state reps. who endorsed Cain just before his straw poll victory, argues that the former CEO shouldn’t be judged on logistics. “Given the choice between an uninspiring candidate with an organized campaign and an inspiring candidate with a less-organized campaign, I’ll take the latter,” he says. Like other Cain supporters, Plakon also predicts that an announcement of a beefier organization in his state is right around the corner.

But time is short. Cain’s place atop the national polls may not translate into votes in parochial early state precincts if he’s unable to establish himself in the next few months. “If you are not going to campaign in the early primary states,” says the South Carolina operative, “where are you going to campaign?” And if nothing changes, he muses, “Is it a campaign or is it a book tour?”