Herman Cain: The GOP’s next big thing?

September 29, 2011

Almost lost amid the buzz this week over the possibility that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may seek the Republican nomination for president was the potential rise of a candidate already in the race: Herman Cain.

After a series of impressive debate performances and a new poll showing him in third place, he is the latest GOP candidate to ride the boom and bust, we-love-you-we-love-you-not cycle of this year’s volatile race.

The former Godfather’s Pizza executive, in his double-breasted suits and gold-colored ties, has wowed debate audiences with his preacherly cadence, his humor and his pizza slogan-worthy 9-9-9 approach to tax policy. (That would be a 9 percent income tax, 9 percent corporate tax and a new 9 percent national sales tax.)

Cain has also impressed his rivals, many of whom named him as a potential running mate in the last Republican debate.

Yet on that Florida debate stage, the choice of Cain as a hypothetical vice president was not so much a sign of his strength, but more of a feeling that Cain wasn’t a true threat.

That may have changed somewhat after the debate. Cain scored an upset against Texas Gov. Rick Perry two days later, notching a double-digit win in the Florida straw poll. And in the most recent Fox News poll, Cain is in third place with 17 percent of the vote, statistically tied with Perry, in his strongest poll showing so far.

Unlike others who have had their moment this year, Cain brings something different to the 2012 GOP nominating contest: He is a black man in a party that has battled charges of racism.

In an interview this week with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that became the talk of cable television, Cain said he thinks that at least a third of African American voters would be inclined to support his candidacy because they are “open-minded” and not “brainwashed” by President Obama and the Democrats.

“It’s just brainwashing and people not being open-minded, pure and simple,” Cain said.

“This whole notion that all black Americans are necessarily going to stay and all vote for Obama, that’s simply not true. More and more black Americans are thinking for themselves, and that’s a good thing.”

On MSNBC’s “Hardball” Thursday, Michael Steele, the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, conceded that Republicans have a problem selling their message to minority voters, but he pointed to victories in the 2010 elections by black GOP Reps. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Allen B. West (Fla.) as evidence that the party is having more success.

Next week, a Simon and Schuster imprint will release Cain’s memoir, “This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House,” in which Cain imagines himself sitting in Obama’s office. (The original title was “Who is Herman Cain?,” suggesting that Cain’s time on the stump has at least raised his profile.)

Cain’s mini-surge comes as the GOP presidential field still lacks a front-runner, with many pining for Christie, and the more conservative and libertarian wings of the party still searching for a consensus candidate and split among Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.).

Cain’s showing in Florida has helped his case among donors, an aide said.

“We are consistently raising several hundred thousand dollars a day,” said Ellen Carmichael, Cain’s press secretary.

Over the next few days, Cain will begin touring to promote his book, open offices in early states and meet with former New York mayor Ed Koch and Donald Trump, who has also met with Perry and Mitt Romney.

While Cain’s win in Florida was largely seen as a rebuke of Perry, who stumbled badly in the debate, it was seen by some as a rejection of the idea that Republicans have a race problem.

“The notion that Democrats elected a black man for president has some in the GOP thinking that maybe they can do the same,” said Michael K. Fauntroy, who wrote “Republicans and the Black Vote.” “At some level, with Cain, the party is hoping to absolve itself from some of the criticism around race.”

Cain, 65, certainly thinks that he can help his party attract up to a third of the African American vote.

Cain’s status as a graduate of Morehouse, a prominent historically black college, could resonate with some black voters, Fauntroy said, but it’s unlikely that he could actually win a significant portion of the African American vote.

“His politics are out of line for what most black people are looking for,” Fauntroy said. “And he said black people were brainwashed, and that’s not what you say to people whose votes you want.”

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.
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