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Rock you like a Herman Cain

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



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ROSE-COLORED GLASSES: Cain, who announced his candidacy at Centennial Olympic Park in May, has been written off by some pundits as a long-shot candidate — but resonated with voters seeking an anti-candidate. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • ROSE-COLORED GLASSES: Cain, who announced his candidacy at Centennial Olympic Park in May, has been written off by some pundits as a long-shot candidate — but resonated with voters seeking an anti-candidate.

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 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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