“The loss did not discourage me,” Cain says. “We ran hard. I moved on with my life. I have never been the kind of person who looks back. Some people never move forward. I know that when I ran for Senate, I did not know everything about politics. I am an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs don’t always figure out all the rules before we try something.”
“I knew that if I was ever going to run again, I would have to start early and hire good people,” Cain muses. “That’s why I announced that I was exploring a run for president back in January of this year. When I started to think about it, I did not want to wait and be coy; I did not have that luxury, or the luxury of a war chest or self-financing my campaign. The luxury that I have now, and have always had, is sweat equity.”
And grit. Five years ago, Cain was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. When it spread to his liver, doctors gave him a 30 percent chance of survival. With a little prayer — Cain is a Baptist preacher and an excellent gospel singer to boot — plus a brutal chemotherapy regimen, the cancer vanished within months.
Out of politics and cancer-free, Cain ruminated about his next step. He was 60 years old, living in the same city he grew up in, blessed with a happy family after a long and successful career. He could have retreated quietly into the Georgia shade, remembered in some quarters, perhaps, as a former pizza magnate or Clinton foe.
Instead, Cain decided to dive back in to the political scene, and do it his own way: not through another Senate bid or high-level consulting, but via the communications talents that had carried him to the heights of American business. He signed on to pen a syndicated column and began to write books about politics, a departure from his bestselling motivational work.
Cain soon hooked up with a local radio station and began to host his own talk program, The Herman Cain Show, out of Atlanta, mixing politics, religion, and advice in a lively three-hour evening slot. The show took off, and Cain began to carve out a base of listeners and supporters in the region.
Beginning in early 2009, Cain became a vocal critic of President Obama’s economic policies. Neal Boortz and Sean Hannity got wind of Cain’s activism — and his voice — and promptly invited him to guest-host their nationally syndicated programs. His direct connection with the talk-radio nation enabled him to be present at the creation of the Tea Party movement.
Cain tells me that he is not merely courting the Tea Party; he comes from it, and feels a deep kinship with his “fellow patriots.” His fledging campaign, for the moment, echoes the movement’s early days: a loose coalition of supporters communicate below the national media’s radar, building an online community and organizing outreach. Cain reckons that as his candidacy unfolds, his deep ties to conservative activists will be his bedrock.
More broadly, Cain senses something special happening around him. He says his uphill struggle toward the nomination connects with many Americans who are trudging through the recession. Cain’s rallies are more than pro-Cain events; they are right out of the Lee Greenwood songbook, with a fiery, low-budget charm.
Indeed, as he travels to New England town squares and sweeping cornfields, everything Cain touches feels local, almost familial and utterly disconnected from the GOP machine, even as he campaigns for the national party’s nomination. Cain does not run away from the suggestion; he welcomes it. So do his supporters, like those in Frank Luntz’s focus group, who seem drawn to him even if they hardly know who the heck he is, or where he stands on a variety of issues.
At an outdoor event in Georgia last summer, one man took the microphone during the question period to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” his gravelly voice floating over the community picnic and emerald knoll. As he hit the high notes, the crowd rose to its feet, put their hands on their hearts, and sang along. Up on the stage, Cain beamed. The video has since generated more than 2.9 million views on YouTube. That moment, and the mega-clicks, is just one example of Cain’s deep tea-party roots.