‘How many of you think Herman Cain won the debate?”
Twenty hands shot up.
“Well, we can stop right there,” said Frank Luntz, a fast-talking political consultant, as he paced before a Fox News focus group on May 5. “This is unprecedented.”
Luntz pointed to the top row, looking for answers. One by one, South Carolina Republicans in trucker caps and business suits raved about Cain. After watching the 65-year-old spar with fellow GOP presidential contenders, many were itching to join his ranks.
“He’s a breath of fresh air,” explained one gentleman. “He is the godfather of business sense, and he can attack Obama well,” declared a middle-aged lady. Others nodded vigorously.
Luntz was stunned. “[Cain] was not a real candidate before tonight,” he exclaimed. “What happened?”
Cain chuckles about the bewildered Beltway response to his star turn. “You never know what to expect with these sorts of things,” he says. “You never know if the perception is going to be ‘everybody was the same,’ i.e. mediocre, or somebody is going to say something that creates some separation.”
Cain, a former corporate executive and talk-radio host, did more than that; he won over a slew of Republicans pining for a 2012 candidate. Though he was standing among better-known Republicans such as Tim Pawlenty and Ron Paul, Cain’s rich baritone, business smarts, and sharp one-liners connected.
It’s easy to see why: He was frank and refreshing. But more notably, on a stage full of state and congressional leaders, Cain used his outsider status to his advantage. “Most of the people who are in elective office in Washington, D.C., they have held public office before,” he noted during one exchange. Then, with expert comedic timing, he quipped: “How’s that workin’ for you?”
The audience roared. Cain kept rolling. He shrugged off his past support for Mitt Romney: “He did not win [in 2008],” Cain reasoned. “I’m going to try my time.” On the death of Osama bin Laden, he was Shakespearean: “One right decision doth not a great president make.”
Since the debate, Cain has seen his fortunes rise. The latest Zogby poll shows him trailing only New Jersey governor Chris Christie in popularity among GOP-primary voters. In Washington State over the weekend, Cain won a Republican straw poll.
Online, the buzz is palpable. He was a trending topic on Twitter during the debate; on Facebook, he has 84,000 friends, a number that’s growing every day. Conservatives may not know much about him, but they like what they are hearing. As Rush Limbaugh remarked on his radio show after the debate, “Herman Cain made me think I was listening to me in every answer.”
In many respects, Cain’s rapid emergence echoes his national political baptism.
In 1994, Cain was chairman and chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza, an Omaha-based chain. Pres. Bill Clinton was peddling his health-care plan at town halls. At one televised session, Cain calmly argued with the president about the cost to restaurateurs. “Mr. President,” he said, “with all due respect, your calculation on what the impact would do, quite honestly, is incorrect.”