Blowing Smoke
With a politically incorrect puff, Mark Block lights up the presidential race.


Robert Costa

Now both men know that Cain, who has never held elective office, is no Reagan. But Block sensed something Reaganesque in the way Cain communicated at AFP events, drawing and holding massive crowds, weaving humor into policy discussions.

Block stewed for a few months, mulling these ideas. When he could, he’d travel to watch Cain wow conservatives at grassroots conferences, even though most of them didn’t know much about him..

Clearly, Cain wanted more. The question was what.

In his mid-fifties, and with little to lose, Block settled on an outrageous idea: running for the presidency, using AFP-style, outsider tactics. If anything, he reasoned, it’d be a hell of a ride.

Block didn’t rush to tell Cain about this thought, which lay dormant in the back of his mind for a couple months. They were close friends and had hinted at the idea a few times in conversation. But talking about it seemed absurd, especially three years before the election. That is, until Cain started to bring it up himself.

Block remembers the moment vividly. It was on a cold winter evening in March 2010.

“This whole thing started in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., at the Defending the American Dream Summit,” an AFP event, Block says.

Cain spoke, as he usually did, about the failures of the Obama administration. He spoke about his hope for the future. Then he went off-script in his conclusion: “I wanted to let President Obama know that in 2012, there will be a new sheriff in town.” The crowd roared.

Was he hinting at a potential candidacy? Block thought so. So did Linda Hansen, who at the time was a leading Wisconsin conservative.

Hansen, a former GOP county chair, was backstage with Cain that night. She asked Cain the same question. She was excited when he didn’t shush the idea.

Block began to get calls from reporters, asking whether Cain was eyeing a run for the White House. Block denied the rumor on the record, but told Cain days later that the excitement over the idea, however farfetched, was real. A few media members, he told him, were already looking for more information. Bloggers were buzzing.

Cain was calm when he heard Block detail the calls. It was only a little tease, a throwaway line, but it had stirred the waters — and he didn’t mind. Indeed, Cain’s positive response confirmed Block’s hope: that Cain was very close to considering a candidacy.

A couple of weeks later, Block, Cain, and Hansen met for dinner in Las Vegas after attending another conference. “Table five at the Capital Grille,” Hansen remembers, laughing.

Block nods. “We started looking at it with a cold eye, mapping things back from November 2012 to 2010, discussing certain criteria about what would need to happen,” he says.

When the trio agreed on a broad strategy, based around what they’d learned in Wisconsin, they paused and let the enormousness of a White House run sink in. Hansen prayed silently, thinking about what they were pondering. Block, a gruff, no-nonsense fellow, did the same.


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