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.”