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Rock you like a Herman Cain

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

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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."

BUT CAIN HE? Tea partiers embraced Cain early on for his staunch opposition to federal health care reform — but might be hard-pressed to pick between him and fellow populist champion Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • BUT CAIN HE? Tea partiers embraced Cain early on for his staunch opposition to federal health care reform — but might be hard-pressed to pick between him and fellow populist champion Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

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

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