As the Texas governor has tumbled in polls for the Republican race for president, Cain – the former pizza magnate and radio talk show host – has enjoyed a surge in support from a restless Republican electorate sifting through would-be suitors.
Cain has topped a slew of recent straw polls – tests of conservative activists – notably pulling off an upset in the battleground state of Florida. His fundraising has apparently picked up and his poll numbers are climbing, too. A new CBS survey had the Atlanta businessman in a statistical tie for the lead with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. His just-released, rags-to-riches political memoir has landed among Amazon.com’s top 10 best-sellers.
Yet, with his presidential campaign suddenly in the spotlight, Cain isn’t canvassing in Iowa or New Hampshire but at a Barnes & Noble in St. Petersburg, Fla., as part of a two-week book tour to promote “This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House.” He’ll be hawking the optimistically titled memoir at appearances in Florida, Texas, Virginia and South Carolina, states likely to play key roles in the 2012 race.
He’s also made splashy national appearances on “The View” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and won’t be back in Iowa – the first-in-the-nation caucus state – until next month.
It’s not the traditional strategy of a serious White House contender. But then Cain is not the traditional presidential candidate.
The former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza has never held elected office, having lost a 2004 Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Georgia. In other years, such a sparse political resume might be disqualifying, but Cain is running for the tea party mantle and he brandishes the outsider status like a badge of honor.
Cain told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he’s working hard to build his name recognition and the book tour – which has been interspersed with political events – helps do just that. Once supporters come aboard, he said, they stick.
“That’s the reason I am not worried about being the flavor of the week,” Cain told the AP. “Because we have a whole lot of substance we are putting out there, and Cain supporters do not defect.”
Indeed, several hundred people packed a St. Petersburg bookstore Wednesday to meet the candidate.
“I like everything that he says and all his ideas,” said Lynn Drag, a 62-year-old retiree from St. Petersburg. “I think he’s more of a common-man kind of a person. He has specific ideas that I can understand. And he seems like a self-made man.”
Steven C. Wright, a 59-year-old St. Petersburg-based church pastor, said part of Cain’s appeal is his faith.
“He is a true, biblical Christian,” he said. “I think that he’s the real deal.”
“Look at the turnout. I did not expect this,” said Wright. “That shows he has a strong grass-roots effort.”
But does Cain have the campaign infrastructure and fundraising muscle to capitalize on the momentum? Or will he flame out like other conservative darlings in the GOP race who’ve wilted under close scrutiny, such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann?
Cain’s Iowa organization has been beset with problems, prompting some caucus activists to look at other candidates. Cain’s Iowa campaign manager and two top caucus organizers, including influential tea party activists, quit in late June, unhappy with the candidate’s commitment to appearing in the state.
Last election cycle, Cain lent himself $500,000 to keep his campaign afloat.
And even in his home state of Georgia, where Cain enjoys strong tea party support, elected officials and deep-pocketed donors have pledged their allegiance elsewhere.
Republican strategist Dan McLagan, a veteran of four presidential races, called Cain “this week’s Michele Bachmann until he shows some organizational strength and fundraising ability.”
But McLagan also credited Cain for pushing a tax reform plan that’s resonating with voters hungry for solutions.
“And that could serve as a lesson to the others to find something to be for,” he said.
Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan is the centerpiece of his campaign and has the catchy ring of a Godfather’s pizza promotion.
It would scrap the current tax code and replace it with a 9 percent tax on corporations and personal income as well as a 9 percent national sales tax. The sheer simplicity of the change, Cain argues, would boost the economy. Conservatives generally like the plan. Some liberals argue it would harm lower- and middle-income families.
But the sudden buzz surrounding Cain reflects more of the unsettled nature of the Republican race – with conservatives trying out and then rejecting would-be suitors – than it does Cain himself.
“He is the next guy to go through the conservative vetting process and will have to prove to be able to beat both Romney and (President Barack) Obama for conservatives to embrace him,” said Erick Erickson, who runs the conservative blog RedState.
“If he can’t show that, conservatives will probably go back to Perry.”
Cain has also had his share of stumbles, mostly on foreign policy and Islam.
An African-American, Cain likes to say that he is American first, black second and conservative third. But he’s created some waves in the black community by suggesting that blacks have been “brainwashed” to vote Democratic.
“A lot of black Americans are thinking for themselves. Now there are some that are so brainwashed that they won’t even consider a conservative idea,” he said on “The View” this week.
Still, new polls give the Cain camp reason to be hopeful. The son of a chauffeur and a maid, Cain seems to have a quality that some other rivals lack: likability.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll out early this week found that 47 percent of voters said the more they get to know about Cain the more they like him. That tops the GOP field.
The latest Gallup poll measure Cain’s “positive intensity” score at 30, the highest Gallup has measured for any GOP presidential candidate to date.
“The media has tried to make this a two-person race,” Cain told the AP. “But I think what we are seeing is that the voice of the people is more powerful than the media.”