Cover Story: Rock you like a Herman Cain

The dizzying rise of Atlanta's best-known black conservative

On a recent Thursday afternoon in the wilds of Dunwoody, Herman Cain, fresh off an appearance on Fox News, sits in front of nearly 100 supporters in a hotel ballroom and begins singing.

"On my journey now," the former radio host croons softly in his deep baritone. "On my journey now. Well, I wouldn't take nothing ... for my journey now."

The crowd assembled for a "virtual town hall" in the Atlanta Perimeter Hotel sits silent, both taken aback and honored by the impromptu a capella performance by a man seeking to become the Republican nominee to unseat President Barack Obama next year.

A technical glitch has interrupted online viewers' questions for Cain, but he isn't fazed. Rising from his chair on the stage, the 65-year-old African-American — scratch that, "American black conservative," as he says — continues the tune.

"Mounnnnnnnt ... Zion," he closes the song, bowing to ear-splitting applause. One woman rushes to the stage and places a dollar at his feet. Another follows. A young boy leaves some coins.

"Do you think I'm going to give you this dollar back?" Cain says with a laugh. "I'm sorry, this isn't very presidential is it?"

Not really. But not much about Cain's campaign to move from his Stockbridge home to the White House is presidential, strictly speaking. Since announcing his candidacy in May in front of an estimated 15,000 supporters in Centennial Olympic Park, Cain has crisscrossed the country, winning straw polls of die-hard conservatives and hyping a tax-reform plan he says will "supercharge" the economy.

But even though he quickly distinguished himself as the lone dash of excitement in a ho-hum pack of GOP candidates, Cain, who's never held public office, faces steep odds to edge aside his better-known opponents and win the party's nomination. Whether Cain's a publicity-obsessed huckster looking to snag a TV deal, a game-changer from the private sector or a true believer sincerely trying to promote his brand of conservatism, the long-shot candidate has become one of the new faces of the Republican Party. But to many he remains a puzzle.

Republicans couldn't have created a better candidate in a laboratory: an intelligent, articulate, charismatic black biz wiz-turned talk-radio host in a cowboy hat — nicknamed "the Hermanator" — who quotes freely from the Book of Reagan, preaches as an associate minister at a Baptist church near Vine City and believes the Democratic president to be a socialist menace.

Cain worked his way out of poverty to become a successful CEO, beat liver and colon cancer and even released a gospel album. Had he defected from the Soviet Union, he'd be on a dollar bill by now.

Cain's father, Luther, left the family farm in Tennessee for Atlanta at 18 and worked as a barber, a janitor, and a chauffeur at Coca-Cola to provide for sons Herman and Thurman and his wife, Lenora, a domestic worker. In 1958, the elder Cain was able to buy a westside home so the boys didn't have to sleep on a cot in the kitchen. Young Herman absorbed his father's work ethic and, at the age of 12, landed his first job working as a janitor's assistant at Pillsbury.

The Coca-Cola stock his father earned as Robert Woodruff's driver went toward paying for Herman's tuition at Morehouse College. After graduation, he worked as a mathematician for the Navy before earning a computer science degree from Purdue University. He worked at Coke and then returned to Pillsbury, where, Cain told Fox host Sean Hannity, he worked his way to the executive suites "before it was cool for a black guy to be vice president."

In 1982, Cain joined Burger King, having earned a reputation as a go-getting executive who wasn't above cleaning the toilets or tending the grill. Four years later, Pillsbury execs recuired him to move to Omaha and lead the troubled Godfather's Pizza. Rather than delicately guide the national chain into liquidation, Cain turned the company around. It's around this time, Cain says, that he realized how regulations can stifle business.

"I became a conservative when I started making serious money," he tells CL. "Growing up, I didn't have a lot of money. I wasn't focused on politics like a lot of people because it was something I figured someone else had taken care of. But when I got older and my career moved into higher levels of management and I realized the government put up more barriers, that's when I got involved."

Cain's first foray into politics came during a 1994 town hall by then-President Bill Clinton to pitch his federal health care proposal. Cain, boasting a full head of hair and nerdy glasses, was ready with a tough question.

"For many, many businesses like mine, the cost of your plan is simply a cost that will cause us to eliminate jobs," Cain said. "If I'm forced to do this, what will I tell those people whose jobs I will have to eliminate?"

The query flummoxed the president, made Cain an overnight sensation and, in many political observers' opinions, helped kill Clinton's proposal. Former Congressman and GOP vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp noticed and recruited Cain into politics.

In 2000, Cain and his wife, Gloria, returned to Atlanta to be closer to their aging parents and launch the business mogul's speaking and consulting empire. He moved into a home near a golf course where he could practice his game. In 2004, he placed second in the Republican Senate primary against Johnny Isakson, edging out Mac Collins, a sitting congressman. Tom Perdue, a GOP political consultant who first heard Cain speak in in the early 2000s, still believes the pizza CEO could've won the race had he joined earlier: "I think he would've been the senator."

Since then, Cain has hosted a radio show in Atlanta, which helped him hone his speaking skills, craft his positions and boost his profile.

"There's never been a thing he's said that I've disagreed with," says Susan Bryg, a Woodstock resident who began listening to Cain three years ago. "He's got all the elements we need to turn our country around."

Cain appears to have learned from some of the mistakes of his failed Senate bid. Though he only announced his presidential exploratory committee in June, he's been in de facto campaign mode by joining mad-as-hell conservatives' protest against Obama's health care reform proposal.

"He certainly has a following in the Tea Party movement," says Sal Russo, a political consultant and founder of the Tea Party Express. "I don't think people should underestimate him."

On the campaign trail, it's clear that Cain is having the time of his life. He often veers from a well-rehearsed script to crack jokes (but often must remind the crowd to laugh). He tells audiences that his campaign staff tells him he's supposed to "be more presidential," but then charms the audience by shouting: "I can't help who I am, OK?"

His take-me-as-I-am pitch and business background has impressed mainstream conservatives and independents who say they're tired of career politicians who deliver the status quo. Chet Zboro, a business adviser from North Fulton, says Cain "gets to the point and cuts through clutter and all those clichés."

"His solutions-oriented approach impresses me," Zboro says. "Sometimes you've got to turn the laundry basket upside-down. If not, it's the same old, same old. Besides, what's wrong with getting a CEO in the White House?"

Cain's economic platform is typical conservative fare. He's advocating drastic changes to the tax code, including replacing the income tax with a 23-percent national sales tax dubbed the Fair Tax. He says he'd ask gas and oil CEOs who've "been abused" by the Environmental Protection Agency to help review its regulations. He's championed Georgia's immigration law, adding that he'd build an electrified border wall next to an alligator-filled moat.

On other issues, he's been less sure-footed. Cain calls Obama's foreign policy "foggy," yet adopts a trust-me approach. He says he can't unveil an Afghanistan strategy until he's elected. "I think it is disingenuous to tell the American people what I would do when I don't have the intelligence information," he told Fox News' Chris Wallace.

When Wallace asked him about Palestinian refugees' right to establish camps in Israel as part of a peace agreement, Cain sputtered, causing his campaign to issue a clarification. While this brought snickers from pundits and liberals waiting for Cain's eventual implosion, some political strategists say it's a cagey move.

"The fact that he's willing to be self-deprecating and say 'I don't know' is almost refreshing," says one political consultant who asked not to be identified. "You don't see Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty doing that."

Next: Is it possible for a dirt-poor Atlanta kid to become president?

Slideshow: Herman Cain announces White House bid in Centennial Olympic Park

Helping Cain on his presidential quest is a team that includes several veterans from Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit anti-tax group that's been linked to the Koch brothers, the billionaire industrialists who've poured hundreds of millions of dollars into conservative causes. Cain's campaign manager, Mark Block, previously headed AFP's Wisconsin chapter, which played a large role in Gov. Scott Walker's effort to strip the state's unions of most of their bargaining rights. According to Politico, Cain's legal team has ties to Jim Bopp, who advised Citizens United in its landmark Supreme Court victory involving corporate funding of political advertisements.

The links have caused some journalists to wonder if Cain is simply a stalking horse for far-right positions. In short, by winning support and delegates at the Republican National Convention, Cain could force the eventual nominee to adopt chunks of his own platform — encoding it into the party's DNA for future elections.

A Cain spokesperson calls such a theory "patently false" and says the Koch family has "absolutely no involvement in the campaign."

Cain decided to run, he says, because the country has become besieged by crises: moral, economic, an "entitlement spending crisis," immigration and a "deficiency of leadership." And he believes he's the best man to solve these problems.

Yet many people are scratching their heads about Cain's candidacy. Unlike his opponents, he's never held elected office. Only four presidents — Eisenhower, Hoover, Grant and Taft — reached the White House without previously winning an election.

"Cain does not have the name recognition or the reputation of Ike, Grant or Hoover," says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "Cain's lack of experience will handicap him. Especially if a crisis erupts, voters will be more reluctant to support a candidate who has not occupied an elected office or a position having great responsibilities."

What's more, it's difficult to imagine the GOP establishment rallying behind someone who's not one of their own. Political consultant Perdue says Cain breaks from the tradition of waiting in line for one's shot.

"Republicans tend to say, 'Now it's your turn,'" Perdue says. "Which is why they often have John McCain or Bob Dole-type candidates. Nice guys are nice guys, but they're not gonna win in the long run. Herman doesn't have that in his favor."

But, as recent political history has shown, former unknowns can strike a chord with Americans. Cain says he's not in the race to become a Palin-like celebrity. And he always scores applause with a line he trots out when asked about his lack of political experience: "All the people in Washington, they've held office before. How's that working for you?"

For weeks, Cain weathered criticism over his claim that he wouldn't appoint a Muslim to his cabinet or the federal bench. A pledge not to sign bills longer than three pages — which Cain later said was a joke — led to a "Daily Show" mocking. Cain accused the show of picking on him because he's a black conservative.

The matter of his race — which Cain says has made him the target of such slurs as "Uncle Tom" and "Oreo" — has proved to be a hot potato, for better or worse.

"I'm not going to allow people to distract us with this whole color thing," Cain tells the Dunwoody town hall crowd. "It's not about color. It's about good ideas that will save this economy and this nation."

Yet Cain also sneaks puns and racial references into nearly every appearance. He calls himself the "dark horse candidate." He vows not to "stay on the Democrat's plantation." He says the media's "doubly scared that a real black man might run against Barack Obama" and pleads with supporters not to "condemn me because the first black one was bad." Just moments before telling the Dunwoody audience that race won't play a role in the campaign, he jokes that the only thing distinguishing him from his opponents is "the color ... of my eyes."

William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University, counts Cain among a new breed of black conservatives who've adopted the Republican mantra that Democrats often exploit blacks for political gain. Plus, Boone says, what better way for the Tea Party to refute charges of being racist than by rallying around a black candidate?

"That's not to argue that people in the Tea Party don't sincerely back Cain," he says. "But his presence does, in some circles, legitimize the fact that the Tea Party isn't exclusively made up of white men."

When asked by CL if he'd venture into south Atlanta to woo African-American voters, Cain says his message will win over supporters, regardless of race. He claims support from many black "closet conservatives."

"I go to church in Atlanta," he says. "I never left the black community. I'm a part of the black community. I don't have to do anything but tell people the truth. The truth transcends ethnicity."

So, is it possible for a dirt-poor Atlanta kid who became CEO of a pizza company to win the presidency? That likely will depend on his showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, key states that usually determine when struggling candidates should drop out of the race.

In early July, the Cain campaign announced it had raised $2.5 million and showed no debt, a detail his strategists hope will impress fiscal conservatives. More than 27,000 contributions were made online, another detail staffers say signal grassroots support from people who are ready to tell friends to vote for Cain. But that cash is chump change for a presidential race.

By contrast, Mitt Romney, considered the frontrunner, has raised $18.25 million. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has $4.2 million. And Tim Pawlenty reported $4.5 million in contributions. The only well-known candidate Cain bested in fundraising is Newt Gingrich, with $2 million. Obama, on the other hand, has raised $48 million.

In late June, the Cain campaign began to see a slow exodus of staffers. The campaign's New Hampshire director quit, saying Cain wasn't investing enough resources in the state. A week later, his Iowa straw poll director left. Shortly after, Charles Gruschow, a key Iowa Tea Party supporter, told Politico.com he left because the campaign had become "just too messy" and he was "disappointed in some of the decisions that were made and some of the comments that were made by others."

The departures were dismissed as par for the course for a fledgling campaign. Last week, the campaign opened its Iowa office.

"This campaign has lost no momentum because two people decided that they wanted to move on with their lives," Cain told Fox News' Neil Cavuto. He's partly right. The resignations, which reporters tend to overdramatize in the minute-by-minute coverage that accompanies political campaigns, haven't slowed Cain's progress. But the widening of the GOP slate of candidates certainly has.

Since Bachmann and Romney joined the race, Cain's been competing for headlines. Considered the "winner" of the first GOP debate in May, he received much less attention during the June debate. Once hailed as a charismatic outsider from the private sector, Cain is increasingly seen as just another candidate — one surrounded by seasoned political pros.

"Cain is one of the longest shots in the GOP field," says Bullock. "If he does not score well in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will quickly drop out."

Even if Cain doesn't win the nomination, he's already raised his profile far beyond that of CEO and radio host. According to Gallup, nearly half of Republican voters know who Cain is, compared to just 20 percent a few months ago. An autobiography, to be published in October, can only help. He could end up a strong vice presidential candidate or land a cabinet position in a GOP administration. He could run for Congress. He could eschew elected office altogether, follow Mike Huckabee's example and host a TV show. Or maybe he'd rejoin the speaker circuit and advocate conservative policies from the outside.

"He doesn't have anything to lose if he loses the primary," Perdue explains. "He doesn't have to be president to feel like he's a man. He would have shaped the debate. Running will only help refine him for the next challenge if he doesn't win."

Adds Perdue: "If he wins, it's a whole other story."

Thanks to Jake Cook for inspiring this story's headline.

Slideshow: Herman Cain announces White House bid in Centennial Olympic Park

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