Who is Herman Cain?

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Herman Cain won a presidential straw poll at a "tea-party" event in Phoenix over the weekend which brings up an obvious follow-up question:

Who in blazes is Herman Cain?

Other than one of the few Republicans to actually have declared outright his interest in his party's presidential nomination, Cain, 65, is the former chief executive officer of Godfather's Pizza, and he worked as a conservative radio host in Atlanta for years.

The "Hermanator" has become a tea-party favorite through his advocacy of, among other things, the so-called Fair Tax, which would eliminate the federal tax code in favor of a national consumption tax on retail sales. He also supports returning to the gold standard.

His radio chops are evident in high-spirited speeches such as the ones he delivered at the Tea Party Patriots conference in Arizona and at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier in February.

"We are an exceptional nation, and we want to keep it that way," he said to raucous cheers in Phoenix. "I don't know any mediocre Americans."

Cain, an African American who is fond of saying liberals are destroying the American Dream, hasn't hesitated to invoke his background when comparing himself to President Obama.

"I've been called so many names for being a black American patriot who happens to be conservative," he said at CPAC. "You will get called racist just because you happen to disagree with the president, who happens to be black. Well, they call me racist too, because I disagree with the president."

Cain takes credit for helping to derail President Clinton's healthcare initiative during his first administration. As the then-chairman of the National Restaurant Assn. in 1994, Cain said his opposition during a televised town hall helped build momentum that forced Clinton to abandon the effort.

Cain won the most support among those attending the Tea Party Patriots gathering while Ron Paul, who won the straw poll at CPAC, garnered the most votes overall when online voters were added.

Cain opened up his exploratory committee earlier this year -- and while he hasn't made a full-blown commitment to running, a "Draft Cain" movement on the Web has sprouted.

And while no one expects Cain to be able to compete financially with the likes of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich (who reportedly is likely to announce his own exploratory committee in the coming days), and other mainstream candidates, Cain's growing popularity -- along with the enduring support for Paul -- is a reminder that significant tranches of the tea-party movement and the GOP in general remain out-of-sync.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the only major potential GOP presidential candidate to make the trip to Arizona for the conference, finished behind Cain and Paul, as well as Sarah Palin, in overall polling. But Pawlenty appears to be making a concerted effort to woo the tea-party wing. And if Palin stays out of the race, the opportunity for someone who some wags have rechristened "Tea-Paw" after this weekend might be there.

Pawlenty, it should be noted, swiped a line in Phoenix from another fringe candidate -- Jimmy McMillan, the now widely parodied founder of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party in New York.

"Here's out simple motto," Pawlenty told the tea-party crowd: "The government's too damn big!"

James.oliphant@latimes.com

Twitter: @jamesoliphant

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