Just who is Herman Cain? And what does his presidential run mean for the GOP?

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain is a Fox News contributor. Although Cain is a frequent guest on Fox shows, a network spokeswoman said he is not on contract and is not paid for appearances. This version has been corrected.

May 30, 2011

Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain sipped from a glass of chardonnay at an Italian restaurant near his campaign headquarters here and explained why he found Mitt Romney’s pizza delivery ploy so troubling.

“It’s trivial,” Cain, 65, said of Romney sending his leftover pizza to Obama headquarters last week, an apparent dig that has left the political world scratching its head. “It means nothing.”

As the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, Cain is something of an authority on pie crusts and toppings. But in the embryonic stages of the Republican presidential primary, Cain’s unexpectedly strong showing in early polls and enthusiastic support of the tea party, with which his fiscal uber-conservatism perfectly aligns, have also lent him the clout to weigh in on his fellow contenders.

Not surprisingly, the radio show host, inspirational speaker and Fox regular who in a rumbling baritone calls himself the “Herminator,” considers the field thick with lifetime politicians who are thin on credibility. By contrast, Cain says he’s always been consistent and is not beholden to political operatives. “I’m just myself,” he said.

That’s standard stuff for a protest candidate. Except that a surprising percentage of party activists seem to like Herman Cain.

On Sunday afternoon, before a Memorial Day sweep through New Hampshire and his close-up in the media glare, Cain, wearing a purple shirt, black slacks and with a closely cropped graying mustache, argued that his popularity, tracked by Gallup and CNN polls, was the real thing. He said his dismissal as “entertainment” by conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer or as unserious by former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove was indicative of the gulf that existed between the establishment and the “real world.”

The reality is that it is far too early to accept Cain’s typically brash view of himself as a serious contender. History says he isn’t. But while his supporters like to talk about “Raising Cain,” his momentary blip is, more than anything, raising some serious questions for the GOP.

Who’s calling the shots in the Republican Party — the elite establishment or the grass-roots activists? What does the popularity of a black tea party hero say about the movement’s relationship with race? Is the goal of the upstarts in the Republican field the presidency or a cushy Fox news gig? And in the tea party era, do quixotic candidates tilt at windmills or reap electoral windfalls?

Surveying the field

Cain drove his Lexus down streets named Country Club and Executive Center to get to his campaign headquarters, tucked in an office park that is separated from his home by a golf course. On the wall of his communications director’s office hung a list of Republican rivals, with lines through Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels and others who took a pass. The hallways were festooned with American flags and “Save Me Herman” bumper stickers, the floors piled with Cain’s books, including “CEO of Self” and “Speak as a Leader: Develop the Better Speaker in You.”

Cain’s own office, adjacent to his former radio studio, was decorated with political tomes and crystal entrepreneur awards. On a chair by his desk, a “prayer bear” sat as a testament to his beating stage four cancer in 2006. Cain looked out a picture window at a golfer teeing off on the first hole below. “This is what I was supposed to be doing,” he said with a burst of laughter. He’s chuckling a lot these days. And talking a lot, too.

Romney and Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, he said, “tend to be much more risk-averse.” His fellow Georgian, Newt Gingrich, is brilliant, but perhaps his “time has come and gone.” He said he could understand why Fox television personalities Huckabee and Sarah Palin “would be reluctant to get back into that pressure cooker and back into that fire when they are now discovering a whole new career.”

Cain, who refers to himself in the third person and goes as THEHermancain on Twitter, acknowledged that there was no downside to his own campaign. “A lot more people know who Herman Cain is,” he said, regardless of the outcome. “I don’t have this long-term ambition of I want my own show on Fox,” he said. “I want to be president.”

Challenging Hillary Care

Earlier that morning hardly any cars rolled in front of Cain’s childhood home, a low-slung brick house outside of downtown Atlanta with a front lawn buzzing with bees and hopping with robins.

Decades earlier, when Cain was in the eighth grade, his father drove the family up to the house and declared that it was their new home.

“My brother and I just about went crazy,” Cain recalled.

Cain’s father worked as a chauffeur to Robert Woodruff, the president of Coca-Cola, who tipped his driver with stocks. Those shares helped send Cain to Morehouse College in 1967, where he majored in math and became the first member of his family to earn a degree. Being an overachiever, Cain said, “is an understatement.” He earned an advanced degree in computer science from Purdue University in 1971 and then, like his father, went to work for Coca-Cola, but as a business analyst. Later, in the 1970s, at the age of 31, he joined Pillsbury and focused on its subsidiary Burger King, turning a low-performing Philadelphia region into the best in the country.

“It is possible to screw up the Whopper,” Cain said.

His break came when he joined the fledgling Godfather’s Pizza as CEO and president. He said he was brought on to “oversee its death,” but instead he made it profitable and then bought the chain with investors.

It was as Godfather’s CEO, and head of the National Restaurant Association, that Cain had his first brush with politics. At a 1994 nationally televised town hall event, he challenged President Bill Clinton on his health-care proposal. “If I’m forced to do this, what will I tell those people whose jobs I will have to eliminate?” Cain asked the president.

Cain, who today thinks he was a “catalyst” in the killing of so-called Hillary Care, became a conservative sensation and parlayed his star turn into political opportunities. Gingrich gave Cain a slot on Congress’s flat-tax study group. Jack Kemp marveled at his courage standing up to the president and said he had “the voice of Othello.” In 1996, Cain joined the Dole/Kemp campaign as an adviser. He then co-chaired Steve Forbes’s “flat tax” presidential campaign in 2000. In 2004, he lost a bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia to Johnny Isakson and then focused his energies on a second career espousing his conservative views as an Atlanta radio personality.

A block away from Cain’s sleepy childhood street, congregants arrived at the Greater Fair Hills Baptist Church. Most had never heard of Cain. But Saunja Lawson, 69, lived across the street from him growing up. She called Cain a “beautiful person” who wouldn’t get her vote. His tea party association, she said, had proved vexing. “A lot of people in the community are very shocked because of the upbringing he had,” she said.

Cain said his former neighbor’s reaction was common among blacks who “are shocked that I have become a tea party guy because they have drunk the Kool-Aid on this racist thing.” Cain, who describes himself as an “American black conservative” but also the party’s “dark horse,” said any talk about racism in the movement was “bull feathers.”

Taking his star turn

Cain may be a convenient rebuttal to charges of racism in the tea party’s ranks, but he is also a genuine star.

“Herman generates incredible excitement,” said Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, which has more than 3,500 chapters around the country and does not endorse candidates. “He is a lot more like us than anyone who has run for president in our lifetimes.”

Meckler, whose organization was such a fan of Cain and his business experience that it tried to hire him to its board in late 2009, said Cain’s consistency stood out in the field. “All the candidates are being forced to talk the talk,” Meckler said. “Herman is somewhat unique because he has long-term credibility.”

“He’s not to be underestimated,” said Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party, who is hosting Cain, along with several other candidates, on a bus tour through the state next month.

Like Ron Paul, whom Cain stood beside at a recent Fox debate, all of the attributes that make Cain attractive to the hard-core activists make him an anomaly to a wider audience. He advocates a “Chilean model” of Social Se­cu­rity, supports a flat tax and speaks with reverence of the gold standard. In a Fox News interview with Chris Wallace on May 22, the day after he announced his bid, Cain seemed ignorant of the notion of the “right of return,” a centerpiece issue in the Middle East peace process.

“It would have helped if he would have said Palestinian right of return,” said Cain, adding, “Return to the bar? Return home?” Cain said he was focused in the interview on pronouncing Benjamin Netanyahu’s “name right.” He is currently reading a book on Israel.

In the Fox debate, Cain offered no Afghanistan position, saying he’d depend on “the experts and their advice and their input.” On Sunday, Cain stuck to that non-position, saying he would develop a plan “between Election Day and swearing-in.”

Yet for all his shortcomings and the “gaffes” he is sure he will make, Cain is, momentarily at least, enjoying a level of support that requires attention, even as he compares character in politics with fresh ingredients in pizza. He also confides, as though it is big news, that he will give everyone on his campaign corporate titles. Cain is enjoying himself, and he hopes his giddiness is infectious.

“It’s taking off!” he said excitedly to the manager as he entered the Italian Oven Restaurant. “It’s really taking off.”

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