Herman Cain, a retired businessman who rescued the Godfather’s Pizza chain from peril in the late ‘80s, was holding his final meet-and-greet of the day at the Royal Cafe, a modest restaurant with a retirement home on its second floor. Earlier that day, he’d visited a firehouse in Iowa Falls and a “tea party” gathering in Marshallville.
About 40 people, many of them elderly, sipped pink lemonade and listened politely as Cain explained why he should be the next Republican presidential nominee.
“I have a secret weapon to get stuff done,” said Cain, 65. “Make sure you’re working on the right problem, and assign the right resources.”
It’s a capitalist’s formula for improvement, but as secret weapons go, nothing too explosive. Cain, who grew up in the segregated South, sells himself as the common sense Republican in the presidential race. Never elected to public office, he has no legislative record to pick apart. He believes it is God’s will that he run for president. His inexperience, he says, is a plus.
“Reporters will sometimes ask, ‘Well don’t you think the voters are gonna hold it against you that you’ve never held public office?’ ” Cain said. “And I say, ‘Well, no. Most of the people in Washington, D.C., have held public office. How’s that working out for you?’ ”
Cain’s easy manner on the podium, booming laugh and slightly goofy sense of humor stand out in a Republican field dominated by bland former governors (with the exception of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, colorful in her own right). Cain, who also sports a thin moustache, calls himself “the Hermanator” and “head coach” of “Hermanator’s Intelligent Thinkers Movement.” When he gets irritable, he narrates the moment: “If you’re trying to make me lose my cool,” he told a journalist at a gathering of conservative bloggers, “you’re almost succeeding.”
But he has potentially serious drawbacks: He often says he is still wrestling with his policy positions, has raised little money and shoots from the lip about issues like whether he would appoint Muslims to his administration or the federal bench. (“No, I will not,” he said firmly when asked by a reporter for the liberal website ThinkProgress. When pressed on that point during a debate June 13, he backtracked, trying to draw a distinction between “peaceful” and “militant” Muslims.)
Also, key staffers in Iowa and New Hampshire quit last week, citing disorganization at the top and his light schedule. “He was not willing to put the effort into Iowa that he needed to win,” said Tina Goff, his former Iowa state director. Cain also lost Charlie Gruschow, a founder of the Des Moines Tea Party who was his liaison to the evangelical community, a crucial constituency of the Iowa GOP.
“We’re a fledgling young organization,” Cain spokeswoman Ellen Carmichael said. “All campaigns go through this.” On Tuesday, she announced five new hires in Iowa.
Still, Cain is connecting with conservative voters in a way that few expected when he began visiting Iowa and other early voting states. He is a social conservative and acknowledges that his positions are much like his opponents’, though he has embraced the “fair tax,” a simple, flat rate that would replace the income tax, and supports a return to the gold standard.
In language that appeals to Republicans who fear for the future of the country under their “socialist” President Obama, he frames the American condition as a series of crises -- economic, immigration, energy, entitlements.
“We have to touch Medicare, we have to touch Social Security, we have to touch Medicaid,” he told an audience in Council Bluffs in March. “If you’re already on Social Security, you won’t be affected. They don’t tell you that when they show you the scare tactics of someone pushing grandma off the bridge in a wheelchair.”
Cain has been to Iowa 21 times. In a poll released June 24, the Gallup organization found that although Cain is less well known than most other Republican candidates, he generates more enthusiasm among voters than any of his competitors.
Yet, Iowa political observer Craig Robinson, who founded the Iowa Republican website, says he thinks Cain is in trouble.
“While he enjoys this skyrocket in the polls, you have to have a ground game,” Robinson said. “People are looking for substance and he never provides it.”
A radio talk show host and preacher, Cain has an appealing rags-to-riches story, though he likes to downplay the riches part. “I am not a bajillionaire,” he said. “Not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. We didn’t even have a spoon!”
No one laughed.
“That was a joke, y’all. Come on!” he said. Cain often tells a crowd when to clap or laugh.
In an interview, he said he would not describe himself as “wealthy,” pegging his net worth at “probably a few million.” (Other estimates put it about $18 million.)
He grew up in Atlanta, where his mother was a domestic worker and his father worked three jobs: chauffeur, janitor and barber. He earned a bachelor’s degree in math at Morehouse College and a master’s in computer science from Purdue University. As he tells crowds, his goal was to make money, and he did that as an executive for Coca-Cola, Pillsbury and Burger King. At Burger King, he was asked to take over its struggling pizza division, Godfather’s. Eventually, he and his management team bought Godfather’s.
For several years until 1999, Cain headed the National Restaurant Assn., which battled attempts by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to raise the federal minimum wage. From 1992 to 1996, he served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, a sticking point for some conservatives he is trying to woo.
“I like what I heard you talk about,” Craig Halverson, national director of the anti-immigration Minuteman Patriots, said at the gathering in Council Bluffs. “You got one black cloud that’s built over you.... Do you have the guts to stand up to the Federal Reserve?”
Cain angrily replied that he did, but that he did not advocate abolishing the Fed, as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has. “People who want to eliminate the Federal Reserve, what would you replace it with? They don’t have an answer to that,” he said.
In 2006, Cain was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon and liver cancer. He underwent chemotherapy, and surgeons removed 30% of his colon, he said, and 70% of his liver, which regenerates. His surgeon, Eddie K. Abdalla, confirmed his account. Carmichael said last week that Cain’s most recent blood tests were “all clear.”
(A YouTube video from February shows Cain telling a church congregation about his concern when he learned that his cancer surgeon was named Abdalla, from Lebanon. “But don’t worry,” he said a physician assistant told him. “He’s a Christian.” Abdalla, who grew up in Cleveland and is on sabbatical at Lebanon American University in Beirut, said Monday that he had seen the video. As a patient, Cain was “delightful” and “charismatic,” the surgeon said.)
“He’s very qualified,” said Andy Cable, a small-business owner who had come to hear Cain speak in late June at a firehouse community room in Iowa Falls.
Cable said he was angry that Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” recently mocked Cain for saying he didn’t think any federal legislation should be longer than three pages.
“Some of these idiotic reporters thought I was serious!” Cain said in Iowa Falls. “The joke’s on them!”
Cain and Cable read something more into Stewart’s joke. “The liberal press wants to demonize blacks because they don’t understand how a black can be a conservative and a Republican,” Cable said.
At the Royal Cafe, Cain said: “I have been called ‘Uncle Tom,’ ‘sellout,’ ‘Oreo,’ ‘shameless.’ So the fact that he wants to mock me because I happen to be a black conservative? In the words of my grandfather, I does not care. I does not care.”
In the same way that Barack Obama’s success offered tangible proof of racial progress, Cain’s candidacy helps the GOP prove it can be a hospitable place for blacks. Cain is a tea party favorite, and his popularity is also a pointed retort to accusations the movement is tinged with racism.
Cain’s first taste of the political spotlight came in 1994, when he challenged President Clinton at a town hall meeting about healthcare reform. Cain told Clinton he would have to lay off Godfather’s workers if he was required to offer healthcare coverage to all employees.
The exchange made him an instant star among conservatives. In 2004, after retiring, he ran for the U.S. Senate, losing in the primary to Johnny Isakson.
“We were devastated, but he is the most positive person I have ever met I my entire life,” said Ericka Pertierra, Cain’s finance director in that race. “He has faith and is driven in his belief that God has a mission for him.”
Cain went on to become a popular radio talk show host, and began laying the groundwork for greater national exposure.
Cain lives 20 miles outside Atlanta in Stockbridge with his wife of 42 years, Gloria. They have two grown children and three grandchildren. He said he did not expect his family to campaign with him. Gloria, he said, has a pacemaker and is not able to maintain the kind of rigorous schedule that the trail demands.
“I had a lady challenge me on that out in California,” he said. “I said, ‘If your decision to support me is based on whether you see my wife and family, then you will have to find another candidate.’ ”
On July 15, the Federal Election Commission will release second-quarter fundraising results for the presidential field. Cain will report raising $2.46 million, not stellar, but not bad for a virtual unknown.
Meanwhile, he will keep visiting cafes and firehouses, hoping to make up in voter enthusiasm what he lacks in cash.
“Y’all could show me a little love,” the Hermanator told the crowd in Iowa Falls. “I need reinforcement like anyone else.”