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Herman Cain’s unconventional approach (and why it’s not working)

at 12:30 PM ET, 11/17/2011

Businessman Herman Cain takes pride in the fact that he is running an unconventional campaign for president.


Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks to reporters at the Secretary of State's office in Concord, New Hampshire November 17, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
“I’m an unconventional candidate, as you know, and we’re running an unconventional campaign,” he said recently on Fox News Channel. Cain also touted his “unconventional campaign” and “unconventional message that is resonating around the country” in an interview with Michael Barone. (There are LOTS more examples but you get the idea.)

Cain rode that unconventional approach — “9-9-9”! — to the top of the Republican field. But now his non-traditional approach to politics is making it more and more difficult for him to regain any semblance of momentum in the 2012 race.

The latest example of how unconventionality (is that a word?) is backfiring on Cain? His odd — and much panned — decision to back out of a scheduled sit-down today with the editorial board of the New Hampshire Union-Leader, a major conservative force in the Granite State.

“I think it’s crazy for a guy who want to be a major presidential candidate here in New Hampshire not to take the opportunity for a full length interview with the state’s largest newspaper,” said Joe McQuaid, the publisher of the Union-Leader. “I don’t think the guy is going anywhere now anyway.”

Ouch.

The Union-Leader kerfuffle — there is NO better word in the English language than “kerfuffle” — is far from an isolated incident. Here’s a look at a few (and, trust us, there are more) of Cain’s more “unconventional” political moves in the last few weeks:

* In response to sexual harassment allegations against him, Cain initially said he was unaware of the settlements paid to the two women in question but less than 24 hours later he recanted and acknowledged that he knew that one of the women received a financial payout from the National Restaurant Association.

* Cain said that a consultant to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign had leaked the story to the media. He later walked back that accusation, acknowledging that he wasn’t sure of the origin of the leak.

* Cain campaign manager Mark Block accused a former Politico reporter of being the son of one of the women involved in the allegations. That, um, wasn’t true.

* Cain sat for an extended interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this week in which he struggled to answer a question about his policy toward Libya and “joked” that he had asked Henry Kissinger to be his Secretary of State. Why was Cain even in Wisconsin, whose presidential primary isn’t until April, in the first place?

Being unconventional in terms of campaign messaging is one thing. Then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama did that with much success in 2008, focusing on the need to press the “reset” button on the political game rather than trying to nibble around the edges of reform.

But, Obama also put a very conventional campaign team and organization in place to ensure that the skeleton that held up his message was strong.

Cain hasn’t done that. He continues to try to do things so differently that his campaign has proven virtually incapable of getting out of its own way.

Cain is learning the hard way that unconventional can only get you so far. And yet, he appears to be doubling down on breaking all of the rules of traditional campaigns — whether or not doing so works for him.

Being unconventional made Cain into a contender. Now it’s unmaking him.

 
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