‘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.”
Clinton, after a long day of softballs, was rattled. Cain, a black, southern business leader who could out-folksy Clinton, had fingered the central flaw in the administration’s proposal: the potential for increased insurance costs to eliminate jobs.
It was more than a splash of cold water; it was a punch to the gut of Hillarycare. The reaction to Cain’s critique was immediate. The exchange was featured on the CBS Evening News and ABC’s World News Tonight. Major newspapers, including the New York Times, highlighted the moment as a thorn in Clinton’s side.
The Clinton–Cain scuffle also drew the attention of Republican leaders, from Jack Kemp to Newt Gingrich, the two of whom enlisted Cain for the Economic Growth and Tax Reform Commission, a congressional study group, following that year’s midterms. For Cain, who had little prior interest in politics, it was a sudden, though welcome, development.
“When I confronted Clinton, I was just trying to help save Godfather’s Pizza,” Cain says. “I never had a desire or inclination to get into politics. People then started to encourage me to run for office, but that was not part of my game plan.”
But the bug had bit. Cain, who was already a leader at the National Restaurant Association at the time of the Clinton town hall, was retained in 1996 as the group’s full-time chief executive. He left Godfather’s to become a national corporate advocate and motivational speaker. He began to crisscross the country, giving hundreds of speeches to business and educational groups.
As his national profile increased, Cain took on a leadership role at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, becoming chairman in 1995. “Spending time at the Federal Reserve was a good learning opportunity for me,” he reflects. “It helped me to understand economic philosophies and polices that I had not previously known about.” For one, he saw up close how monetary policy influences the economy, from inflation to unemployment rates.
As Cain campaigns, he does not run away from his Federal Reserve experience, even as Ron Paul and others call for the institution to be eliminated. Cain would rather mend it than end it, using more congressional oversight. This is not always a crowd-pleasing message on the Des Moines–Manchester circuit. Still, as he makes this case, Cain takes care to do it with tea-party bravado, championing a strong dollar, praising the gold standard, and applauding Paul for his discerning criticism.
After the Hillarycare battles, Cain continued to find himself dabbling in national politics. During the 1996 presidential campaign, he was an adviser to Kemp, a former congressman and housing secretary and Bob Dole’s vice-presidential nominee. The pair had clicked the previous the year on Capitol Hill while serving together on the congressional study group.
For Cain, the working relationship with Kemp was invaluable. Their discussions about the power of pro-growth politics convinced Cain that his business sense could work in the public sector. As Cain builds his own message on the trail, he often thinks back to those talks with Kemp, he says. Cain knows that Kemp could have simply given him a few token handshakes as they worked together on the panel. Instead, he found a partner.
Working as Kemp’s political adviser during the heated presidential race was a thrill. “That was my first involvement in any kind of campaign,” Cain recalls. “After that, I still had no desire or motivation to run for office or get into politics.”
But GOP politicians continued to seek Cain out for counsel and support. Unsurprisingly, he remained close to Kemp, who wrote the introduction to Cain’s 1999 book, Leadership Is Common Sense. A year later, Cain was an active supporter of businessman Steve Forbes, a flat-tax champion, as he campaigned for the presidency.
For all of his southern-fried lyricism, and the pizza jokes made at his expense, Cain’s story is much richer than he usually lets on. When the Klieg lights are shut off, he is a meticulous man in both his bookkeeping and his demeanor. Discipline and dogged ambition drive him.
Cain’s thirst for self-improvement was evident at the start. He grew up in Atlanta, the son of working-class parents — his father a chauffeur, his mother a domestic worker. They had always dreamed of owning their own home, not living in a “half-home,” an attached unit. They achieved that goal. They wanted their two sons to graduate from college. Both did.
Cain saw his parents’ hard work as a simple, inspirational example: Work hard, trust in God, have no fear, and you can achieve the American dream. To him, it is more than a political idea; it is central to who he is as a citizen, and as a potential presidential candidate. Once he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Morehouse College in 1967, Cain was determined to map his own path to success.
The early motivator, and Cain says it unabashedly, was wealth. Working as a systems analyst for the United States Navy in Dahlgren, Va., Cain made $7,729 a year. At age 23, he made a personal goal to one day earn $20,000. As he settled into his position, he noticed that advancement — and an increased salary — would require a graduate degree. So he searched for the top computer-science program he could find, predicting that future jobs would require such skills.
Cain selected Purdue University in Indiana. He was not exactly eager to return to the classroom, but he knew that he needed to learn more and improve his résumé. After surviving a string of difficult courses and exams and earning his master’s degree in 1971, he returned to the Navy full-time and was granted a GS-13 position. His new salary: $20,001.
With two degrees and solid Navy work experience, Cain began to explore new opportunities. He consulted with his father, Luther Cain, who had risen in the chauffeur ranks to become the personal driver for R. W. Woodruff, the legendary former chairman of Coca-Cola. He was granted an interview with the company, based on his father’s sterling reputation, but was told at the outset of the interview that there were no jobs available. Cain so impressed the hiring director that, weeks later, he was offered a newly created position as a business analyst.
Cain learned much at Coca-Cola, but found himself stalled again, often pegged as the “chauffeur’s son” in office politics. When he saw that his path to his new goal — to become a corporate vice president — was likely to be long and arduous, he began to eye other positions within the food industry. In 1977, he landed at Pillsbury in Minneapolis.
It was a fresh challenge, and Cain relished the chance to be an entrepreneur within the company, spearheading projects and managing teams. By 1981, he was tapped to be vice president for corporate systems, overseeing administrative and computer services. The promotion earned him a mention in Black Enterprise magazine. Herman Cain was on the radar.
The gentleman from Georgia drew notice inside of Pillsbury’s downtown headquarters for his ability to communicate. Cain began to develop his speaking style in those drab Upper Midwest conference rooms, using his math skills to break down financial information into easy-to-understand memos and presentations.
“One day, the president of the company called my boss aside and asked where I got my marketing degree,” Cain says. “My boss, Bob Copper, told the president that he does not have one, that I hold math and computer-science degrees. People were surprised about that. I did not come across as an analytic.”
Even as he excelled, Cain’s entrepreneurial itch emerged once again, but this time, he did not leave the company to scratch it. He decided to switch over to Burger King, which at the time was owned by Pillsbury. “That was a major transition,” he says. “I started at Pillsbury as a manager in one of their analysis functions, then worked my way up the corporate ladder to become vice president. Moving to Burger King was an important moment in my career.”
“At the time, in the early 1980s, Burger King was growing so fast,” Cain says. “I wanted to be part of that growth. So I moved out of the information-technology side to the restaurant business. I had to work my way up the corporate ladder again.” He is not kidding. Instead of landing in a cushy corporate office, Cain was put through Burger King’s management-trainee program, washing dishes and cleaning toilets with part-time teenage workers.
Cain viewed the greasy training as graduate school for restaurant management, so he asked many questions about why certain functions were performed, and about how various employees performed their tasks. Low-level workers, as he knew from his childhood odd jobs, often had better insights into workplace efficiency than corporate brass.
Soon after completing his new training, Cain became Burger King’s regional vice president for the Philadelphia region, directing hundreds of franchises. Within a couple years, thanks to his newly instituted employee-morale and customer-service programs, Cain’s Burger Kings saw whopping new profits. The region became a shining light for the company.
“Because I was successful, in two separate areas of Pillsbury, the executives asked me to become president of Godfather’s Pizza in 1986,” Cain says. The promotion was, in part, a reward for his record at Burger King. But it was also necessary: Godfather’s was nearing collapse and needed somebody to shake things up — fast.
Cain quickly moved his family — his wife, Gloria, and their two children — to Nebraska. His time in Burger King’s management program served him well as he took the reins. “We were looking bankruptcy right between the eyes,” he says. “That toughens you up. The path to success was not obvious when I showed up there. We utilized one of my guiding principles, which is to go to the people closest to the problem and ask them for their advice, then put together a strategy. I did not walk in with the answers; I walked in with the questions.”
“When you run a restaurant, you touch every aspect of the labor market, from the hourly-wage worker to the supervisor to the executive,” Cain observes. “Inside of the four walls of a restaurant is an entire corporation. You have to be able to deal with all types of a business: sales, operations, inventory, hiring and firing people, and customer service. It is a laboratory to learn how to deal with all aspects of a business.”
Cain poured all of the business knowledge that he had accumulated into a new plan. He turned off the lights in unprofitable shops, cutting the number of Godfather’s restaurants from 900 to 600. Cain’s maneuvers turned the company around: After years of drowning in red ink, the company began to earn profits. He focused the company on customer service and put new items on the menu, such as the “Hot Slice,” a pizza that could be served within minutes during the lunch hour to busy professionals.
By 1988, Godfather’s Pizza was humming and Cain, ever the entrepreneur, wanted to take control of the company. With a group of fellow executives, he approached Pillsbury with a $50 million leveraged buyout offer. The company accepted. Cain found himself in charge, and in principal ownership, of a major American fast-food corporation with 500-plus units and over $250 million in annual sales.
Cain is confident that he can surge as voters learn more about his business record. Already, fellow 2012 contenders are getting a tad nervous about this possibility, which months ago seemed like a tea-party pipe dream. On the trail last week, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum took a shot at Cain’s electability. “He has never won an election,” Santorum said. “And it’s not that he hasn’t tried.”
In 2004, Cain lost a GOP Senate primary in Georgia to then-congressman Johnny Isakson. He placed second among a crowded field vying to replace retiring senator Zell Miller. It was a tough loss for the hard-charging businessman, a personal and political setback. He thought that he had a real shot: He had catchy ads and a solid ground game, plus the support of old friends such as Steve Forbes. But he got into the race late and stumbled to compete with Isakson’s fundraising. By the end of the campaign, he had funneled over $700,000 from his personal coffers into the effort.
“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.
A March Gallup survey highlighted this particular strength. Cain, the poll reported, generates very strong favorable reactions from Republicans who recognize him. Mike Huckabee led the survey with a “positive intensity score” of 26. But Cain followed close behind with a score of 19. Sarah Palin, for her part, received a score of 18.
All of this — his patriotic fervor, his business savvy — is impressive. But is Cain able?
“Being a businessman for 40 years is like riding a bike,” he replies. “You don’t forget how to do it.” Cain views his campaign as the Godfather’s Pizza of 2012, a small shop that manages to compete with the Pizza Huts of the world, be they Tim Pawlenty or Mitt Romney.
According to numerous reports, Cain plans to officially announce his candidacy at an Atlanta rally on May 21. He will speak in western Iowa the night before to a Republican group.
Cain sees hope in the Hawkeye State, even though he remains little-known in the Midwest. “This didn’t start last Thursday night,” he laughs, citing his many trips and his straw-poll showings around Iowa. “We have a very solid strategy. We don’t need to change it; that debate only gives us more momentum. Now, I’m onto more house parties and meetings in all of the early states.”
Cain acknowledges that fundraising remains his main roadblock, but thinks that can be fixed. “The debate gave me some tremendous name identification,” he says. “I have got to continue that, speaking at debates and at different functions around the country, which is what I have been doing for quite some time. But until the debate, a national audience had never heard me. Now they are starting to hear me, and I don’t think they’ll forget.”
Cain generated fireworks at the first Republican debate, to be sure, but he also raised eyebrows for his vague answers on foreign policy. In our chat, Cain attempted to spell out more of his thinking on this front. I asked: Is he most like George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or Richard Nixon in his outlook?
“I am probably more like a Reagan-slash-Kissinger type, in terms of how I would approach foreign affairs,” Cain says. In other words, he would like to see more practical diplomacy, coupled with national might in military and defense matters. “I totally believe in the strategy of the Reagan doctrine of peace through strength, not namby-pamby,” he says.
“Look, I don’t have all of the facts, I don’t have all of the intelligence information,” Cain says when pressed about his position on Libya and other hotspots. “I would make a decision based on a very clear objective on these issues, based on the strategic interests of the United States, especially when it comes to putting troops in harm’s way.”
On the foreign-aid question, Cain opens up a bit more. “I think it is a problem,” he says. “There are some countries where we should probably not be spending.” But he won’t name names, saying instead that he would not make a full decision until he had all of the facts, taking care to make sure that any cut did not “disrupt” U.S. military and intelligence relationships.
“That being said, Pakistan is a different issue,” Cain says. “There are a lot of unanswered questions. Osama bin Laden was killed by the U.S., but Pakistan had no idea that he was there? That is suspect. But we are going to have to give this question some time before we make a final decision. I wouldn’t just throw them under the bus, but I would make sure we have a full understanding about what they did and did not know.”
Turning to domestic issues, Cain’s main interest is the FairTax, an across-the-board consumption tax that would replace the Internal Revenue Service and the current income-tax system. He also backs Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, which includes Medicare and Social Security reform, and he is firmly against raising the federal debt ceiling.
In February, Cain traveled to Madison to support Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who was attempting to pass a budget-repair bill as the public unions roiled. Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, is a former Wisconsin organizer for Americans for Prosperity, a leading tea-party group.
Cain’s speech outside the state capitol, at what he called “ground zero” in the national labor debate, was an example of how he follows the conservative zeitgeist, flying to wherever politics are hot. But, if one keeps close watch, it is clear that he balances out his appearances: Some days he is rallying with Andrew Breitbart, other days he is meeting with pastors.
As a devout Baptist, Cain is pro-life and supportive of traditional marriage. In South Carolina, he chastised President Obama for not defending the Defense of Marriage Act. He once called Obama’s refusal to uphold the law via the Department of Justice “treason.” The moderator’s mention of this dusty quote brought cheers.
One of Cain’s few snags on the domestic front, at least among the tea-party crowd, is his support for the Troubled Assets Relief Program in 2008. In a column, he chided the “free-market purists” who criticized the legislation. “Wake up people!” he wrote. “Owning a part of the major banks in America is not a bad thing. We could make a profit while solving a problem.”
If Cain continues to shine, that column could haunt. But the Georgian is not worried. “I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “I studied the situation. I didn’t have trouble with the idea; I had trouble with its implementation, picking winners and losers.”
With the federal government bleeding red ink, gas prices skyrocketing, and businesses not hiring, Cain thinks there is an appetite for somebody different, somebody fresh. Heart and experience, he bets, will take him far.
“Maybe I’m a little ambitious,” he says. “But that’s nothing new.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.