Cain Soars as Republicans Hunt for Someone to Love

One-Time Pizza Magnate and Sunny-Skies Orator Herman Cain
One-time pizza magnate and sunny-skies orator Herman Cain. Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Herman Cain, a one-time pizza magnate and sunny-skies orator, is entering a new phase of scrutiny after a wave of Republican Party dissatisfaction with its presidential choices thrust him into second place in a Bloomberg News-Washington Post poll.

Cain, 65, whose come-from-way-behind campaign has been conducted largely via television, presents himself as destined for victory: His new memoir is called “This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House.” Now, in the run-up to tomorrow’s Republican debate in New Hampshire, Cain is being pressed on his so-called 9-9-9 tax plan -- a flat 9 percent rate on corporate and personal income and a national sales tax -- his criticism of the Occupy Wall Street protesters and his lack of experience in public office.

“Get ready for an aberration of historic proportion,” Cain said in an interview yesterday during “State of the Union” on CNN. “People who are criticizing me because I have not held public office, they are out of touch with the voters out there.”

The rise of Cain, political analysts say, is a reflection of prolonged hunger among a segment of Republican voters for someone to inspire -- someone who isn’t former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has been criticized for inconstancy. In the past week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin declined to enter the race. Texas Governor Rick Perry has stumbled, creating an opportunity for Cain.

Vigorous Capitalist

Cain is “not a career politician,” said Alison Howard, 22, who works for a nonprofit organization in Washington and attended the Values Voter Summit in Washington last week, where Cain appeared. “People relate to him because he’s a hard worker who took advantage of capitalistic principles.”

Cain, who describes himself as an “American black conservative,” finished second in the Bloomberg News and Washington Post poll released today. Romney led with 24 percent among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, followed by Cain at 16 percent. When asked which candidate would do the most to improve the economy, 22 percent picked Romney and 20 percent picked Cain.

In the straw poll at the summit, Cain got 23 percent, behind Texas congressman Ron Paul, with 37 percent.

Cain’s Turn

Other candidates, such as Perry and Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, have risen, only to stumble. Still, Cain has established himself as a candidate who may no longer be overlooked by his opponents.

“He’s kind of an interesting guy in that deck of Republicans,” said Bruce Gronbeck, a professor emeritus at the University of Iowa who specializes in politics, rhetoric and television.

“He’s enjoyable and they don’t pick on him,” Gronbeck said.

Cain’s rhetoric is pungent. He drew headlines last week after he told the Wall Street Journal that protesters who have set up an encampment in New York’s financial center are misguided.

“Don’t blame Wall Street,” Cain said. “Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”

Automotive Jealousy

Yesterday on “Face the Nation” on CBS, he said participants are “jealous” Americans who “play the victim card” and want to “take somebody else’s Cadillac.”

The Memphis-born Cain, whose mother was a domestic and his father a chauffeur, is the former chief executive of Omaha-based Godfather’s Pizza, then a subsidiary of Pillsbury Co. Cain shut franchises and changed the menu starting in 1986, and within 14 months, the pizza operator was profitable.

Publicly available figures show Godfather’s sales fluctuated from about $225 million to about $275 million during his time there, sometimes rising, sometimes falling, never surging. Pillsbury sold Godfather’s to Cain and a group of investors in 1988.

By the time Cain left the company in 1996 to head the National Restaurant Association, the industry’s lobbying group, the number of Godfather’s restaurants had dwindled to the low 500s from 640.

In 2000, he ran for the Republican presidential nomination, and in Georgia’s 2004 U.S. Senate primary, he finished second with 26 percent of the vote.

‘Stupid People’

Cain is an advocate of smaller government and would “take the hatchet to the spending” in federal agencies, he told the Wall Street Journal last week. In his speech Oct. 7 to the Values Voter Summit, he vowed that “If you mess with Israel, you mess with the United States of America.”

And he complained in his speech that, “We are up against a lot of stupid people in America.”

Cain’s appeal reflects the mercurial nature of the Republican race, said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

“At the moment, it almost seems like anyone could make headway,” Redlawsk said. “There’s a real malaise out there. If you can get somebody, like a business person, to stand up there and say, ‘I know where we’re going’ and can bring simple answers and solutions, that’s attractive to some voters.”

“You had Donald Trump, now you’ve got Herman Cain. Chris Christie would have jumped to the front on attitude alone,” Redlawsk said.

Real and Raw

Arthur Box, a 53-year-old oil-field worker from Louisiana, said at the Values Voter Summit that Cain is a fresh alternative.

“The other candidates are forced and too polished,” he said.

Matt McLelland, 41, a logistics director from Chattanooga, Tennessee, said, “The economy needs to be run and treated more like a business, and Herman Cain has done it.”

Like Cain, Ross Perot was a candid businessman who ran as an independent in 1992, winning 19 percent of the vote. Gronbeck said Cain has what most executives-turned-politicians lack: the ability to inspire.

“Now it’s Cain’s turn,” Redlawsk said. “Even if he was a businessman, he’s now a politician. And Americans have a love-hate relationship with them. They want them to be better than they are, but they also don’t want them to be politicians.”

For his part, Cain says politics won’t change him: He’ll change politics.

“The political establishment doesn’t get it and I’m fine with that,” Cain wrote in his memoir. “But you can be sure they’ll get it in January 2013 when I’m taking the oath of office as president!”

(Corrects to remove reference to Selzer & Co. in sixth paragraph in story originally published Oct. 11.)
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE