Herman Cain’s long-shot run

September 26, 2011

Herman Cain is on a roll. Off a solid performance in Thursday night’s debate, the former Godfathers’ Pizza chief executive won a straw poll in Florida — one that has predicted the Republican presidential nominee every time it’s been held.

While Cain’s chances of winning the nomination remain slim, he’s not thinking of dropping out anymore. So who is Herman Cain, and how did he get here?

Cain, 65, grew up in Georgia and graduated from Morehouse College. He became a turnaround artist, rescuing the Burger King outlets of Philadelphia. From there, he went to Omaha, where in 1986 he took over and stabilized Godfather’s Pizza with clever advertising and aggressive downsizing.

By the early 1990s, Cain had started to transition out of day-to-day management at Godfathers and delve into politics. In 1992, he was appointed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. In 1994, he became head of the National Restaurant Association, a post he held for five years.

In 1994, in his first memorable political moment, Cain confronted President Bill Clinton at an Omaha town-hall meeting over health-care policy, a tete-a-tete that attracted the notice of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and Republican vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp. Kemp recruited Cain for a congressional study group on tax reform.

Cain left Godfather’s in 1996 and devoted himself to politics, with less impressive results.

He ran for president in 2000, but dropped out early in the race. In 2004, Cain ran for the U.S. Senate from Georgia, finishing a distant second in the GOP primary.

But despite his lack of political success, he managed to attract the notice of a radio executive with his rich, booming voice. His campaign manager became his producer. He trademarked the expression “The Hermanator Experience.”

“What I like about him is his directness, but also his background,” said Florida Republican William Diamond of Cain’s pre-straw poll speech. “To be a black man born during segregation and then to have this great American success story.”

The quality that makes the Republican a popular radio host and tea party favorite, is the same quality that will make Cain’s path to the nomination in­cred­ibly more difficult: Cain speaks his mind.

Just this weekend, he called President Obama’s economic policy “bull$&!#.” He’s said that Planned Parenthood was formed to “help kill black babies.” He’s had to clarify statements that communities should have the right to ban mosques and that he would not be comfortable with a Muslim in his Cabinet.

He’s a hard-liner on social issues and immigration and supports huge cuts to the federal government — policies that might captivate conservative straw-poll voters but won’t lure a wide swath of voters.

Margi Helschien, a Republican from Palm Beach County, was impressed by Cain’s speech. “This was the wow factor we had been waiting for,” she said.

Just as he has a knack for clever advertising, Cain can create a catchy slogan — for example, his “9 9 9” economic plan, which would institute a flat 9 percent tax on corporate income, personal income and sales receipts. He’s also promoted what he calls “the Chilean model” for Social Security (a mostly privatized system).

While Cain likes to boast about having more experience in business than in politics, he’s proved somewhat clumsy at running a campaign.

Top aides in Iowa and New Hampshire quit earlier this year, saying Cain wasn’t taking the early states seriously. One former staffer recently alleged that staff members tried to cover up the role of a gay campaign adviser. He refuses to name the economic advisers who helped come up with his plan. In May, Cain said he couldn’t talk about foreign policy until elected.

None of those problems is eliminated by Cain’s straw poll victory. But his modest fundraising will probably expand with the unexpected triumph, and when the election is over, however it turns out, the national attention could be a huge boost for his radio career and his book sales.

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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