For months, Herman Cain languished on the margins of the Republican presidential campaign. But in the past few weeks, something happened that even Cain did not see coming. He became a front-runner for the nomination.
The Atlanta businessman has shot up in the polls and become a ubiquitous presence on national television. His “9-9-9” plan to reform the tax code has become a household term. His sense of humor and upbeat style have injected a bit of light into a campaign that has centered on the gloom of the economy.
Cain, who brought to the race no obvious constituency to back him, has benefited as other conservative favorites took turns in the spotlight and then fell away, bowing out — or flaming out. But he also has used a series of televised debates to raise his profile and establish himself as a powerful communicator with a simple plan to restart the economy.
“My message of common-sense solutions is resonating with people,” Cain said in an interview. “People around the country are starting to know who I am and starting to identify me with solutions, not rhetoric.”
Cain said he had long expected to gain momentum, but he did not foresee the recent “explosion” of interest in his campaign. Last month, he overwhelmingly won a Florida GOP straw poll, and in a recent Washington Post poll he tied with Texas Gov. Rick Perry for second place, with 16 percent.
But it is not at all clear that Cain can maintain his momentum or support a successful presidential campaign.
He has committed some early missteps, saying he would not appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet and stumbling on questions about the Middle East and the war in Afghanistan. He has since said he is aggressively studying up on foreign policy and that he meant to say he would not appoint a “jihadist” to his Cabinet.
Cain has not released his fundraising figures for the quarter that ended Sept. 30, but he raised about $2.5 million in the previous quarter, much less than most of his rivals for the nomination. And until very recently, Cain had drawn very little scrutiny from the media or criticism from his opponents.
He has had staff shakeups in Iowa, where workers had complained that Cain was not taking the campaign seriously, and in New Hampshire. He has been conspicuously absent — since August — from Iowa, an important state for a social conservative such as Cain to win.
“I think he’s at this point not a viable candidate in Iowa,” said Steve Deace, a conservative talk show host who is influential in conservative circles in the state. “The race appears to be about raising his profile and not running for president. He’s not surrounded himself with the best people and he’s not serious about running for president.”
Cain, 65, has reinforced that belief by spending much of his time this week promoting his new autobiography, “This Is Herman Cain!”
Asked about the skepticism, Cain chuckled. “All I can say is they are dead wrong,” he said. “And they don’t know Herman Cain. Anybody that knows me knows I would not do something like this to self-promote.”
Many of Cain’s supporters initially considered candidates who were viewed as more viable. Robert Owens, 63, said would have backed real estate magnate Donald Trump had he decided to enter the presidential fray, and he considered both Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Perry. He eventually settled on Cain.
“He makes more sense than anybody else,” said Owens, a retired truck driver from Florida. “And it’s just time for something different.”
Many of his supporters say they are drawn to his 9-9-9 plan, which would do away with the current tax system and replace it with a 9 percent flat income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax and a 9 percent national sales tax. Cain has said the measure would be roughly neutral in terms of revenue with the current system but would lead to economic growth.
Cain, who is African American, was raised in government housing projects in Atlanta by a mother who was a maid and a father who was a chauffeur. He grew up “po’, which is even worse than being poor,” he wrote in his book, which ranked in ninth place Thursday on Amazon’s list of bestsellers.
Though his most well-known job was as chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza, he has also worked as a mathematician, a minister, a radio show host and a motivational speaker. He ran a short-lived campaign for president in 2000 and an unsuccessful one for a Georgia Senate seat in 2004. In July, he released an album called “Sunday Morning,” on which he sings gospel tunes.
Cain — who sometimes refers to himself in the third person or as “The Hermanator” — is known for his positive attitude. Among the achievements he lists in his book is his creation at the Burger King chain of the “BEAMER” program, which encouraged cashiers to smile at the register.