Herman Cain is many things, including an African-American Republican, a former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, a cancer survivor -- and the host of a popular radio show
in Georgia. Recently, a "Draft Cain
" movement has emerged, with the goal of drafting Cain into a presidential run. According to Doug Deal, the creator of the "Draft Cain" Facebook page, this is a grassroots effort to "try to help convince him that there's support out there for him."
What makes Herman Cain an especially potent force is his charisma, and the fact that his supporters don't just admire him -- they love him. "He has the ability to really have the 'wow' factor," said Maurice Atkinson, another leader of the Draft Cain movement.
Almost everyone I talked to described Cain as a man of principle and someone with strong leadership skills -- desirable traits in the Oval Office, regardless of ideology. "Herman Cain is an unconventional politician and a leader in every way," said Martha Zoller, host of a popular conservative radio talk show based out of Gainesville, Georgia. "He makes things happen and understands the two things lacking in the current administration -- American exceptionalism and economic principles."
The fact that Cain is a black Republican doesn't hurt his chances, either. As Politico's Roger Simon recently wrote
of Michael Steele: "As a black Republican nominee, Steele could get many of the white votes a Republican usually gets while cutting into the Democratic black vote. In this manner, he could defeat Obama in 2012. And that would be his pitch for getting his party's nomination."
If that's true, then Herman Cain may be Michael Steele without the baggage. "I think Herman could effectively heal the race divide," Atkinson said. Cain has been laying the groundwork for a run. For example, he was the featured speaker
at a recent Tea Party held in Des Moines, Iowa, he has already lined up the support of Joe the Plumber
– and he has launched a political action committee called The Hermanator PAC
When not speaking to Tea Party conservatives, Cain has been buttressing his party bona fides, speaking at insider GOP events like the recent 2010 Southern Republican Leadership Conference
(SRLC) in New Orleans. It was there that Cain publicly hinted he might be planning on running for president. In his closing remarks in New Orleans, Cain said: "There are a lot of people that might be interested in seeking the nomination, but I want you to remember one thing – there might also be a dark horse candidate you don't know about." Cain walked off stage as the crowd went wild. After the speech, Cain reiterated his possible interest in running, telling Melissa Clouthier and Tabatha Hale
, "If I don't see results, I may just have to take matters into my own hands."
Although Cain is hardly a household name, few would deny that his resume
is anything but impressive. He holds a master's degree in computer science from Purdue University and was a corporate vice president for Burger King before running Godfather's Pizza. Previously, he served as chairman of the board of directors for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City -- and was chairman of the board for the National Restaurant Association.
He's never been elected to public office, but Cain did briefly run a quixotic campaign for president in 2000. In 2004, he ran for U.S. Senate
in Georgia, coming in second place to then-Congressman Johnny Isakson in the Republican primary (many believe that had Cain forced a runoff, he would have defeated Isakson in a head-to-head match-up). During the campaign, Cain was criticized for having previously donated money to former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, a Democrat.
Cain says his presidential campaign in 2000 was more about making a point than winning. "George W. Bush was the chosen one," Cain told me. "He had the campaign DNA that followers look for." But Cain also added, "I believe that I had a better message and I believe that I was the better messenger."
Cain blames himself for the loss in 2004, however, saying, "I did not start soon enough." He added that he intends to avoid that same mistake next time around, saying he learned he entered the race too late last time, adding, "that's why I'm in prayerful consideration now."
GOP strategist Carlyle Gregory said he liked Cain, but doubted that voters would send someone to the White House who has never held office. "Although it sounds like a great idea to elect a non-politician," Gregory said, "the last time that worked was in 1952 when we elected Ike, and he was a revered and respected household name, having been successful in another rather important endeavor."
Dan Hazelwood, a veteran Republican campaign consultant, echoes Gregory, reminding me that movement conservatives who pine for the next Ronald Reagan sometimes forget that Reagan set the stage for his presidency by traveling the country speaking about bedrock American values for more than a decade while working as a spokesman for General Electric, and that the Gipper followed that stint by serving for two terms as governor of the most populous state in the union.
While at G.E., Ronald Reagan honed his skill as the "Great Communicator," and in Sacramento, he learned how to horse trade with a Democratic majority in the legislative branch. "Herman Cain can point to his values and business, but he can't say he's ever successfully translated that politically," Hazelwood said. "Everyone forgets Ronald Reagan not only had a vision, but he also had the political skills to change the system."
These strategists raise a good point. We all like to denigrate career politicians, but they do know how to win elections. When I asked Cain if he would be willing to put some of his personal fortune into winning the 2012 Iowa caucuses -- a move some GOP strategists tell me would be needed for Cain to be viewed as viable -- he flatly answered, "No."
"The typical strategists want to give you a typical strategy for the usual suspects. I'm not the usual suspect," he said, laughing. "There are certain fundamental things you need to do, but I've chosen to go unconventional in some ways."
Cain has had much success by being unconventional. When he took over the struggling Godfather's Pizza, parent company Pillsbury thought it was a lost cause. The conventional wisdom said to invest more money in marketing, but Cain cut the marketing budget and focused on providing the best service in the business. His move paid off, Godfather's became a success -- and Herman Cain learned he could win by doing things his own way.
Cain is aided by the fact that he is a full-spectrum conservative with solid fiscal and social credentials. Christian conservatives love him, but unlike, say Mike Huckabee, who excited social conservatives but alienated fiscal conservatives, Cain also has solid economic credentials. The Club for Growth (an influential organization of economic conservatives -- a group Huckabee once called "The Club for Greed") endorsed Cain for senate in 2004. Cain is also close with fiscal conservative, and two-time presidential candidate, Steve Forbes.
If Cain does decide to run, some are sure to compare him to Alan Keyes, another African-American Republican who ran quixotically for president in 2000. This would be a faulty analogy, almost as off-base as Bill Clinton's comparison
of Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson. Most serious conservatives have long considered Keyes a fringe candidate. Cain, conversely, has actually gained credibility in recent years.
My guess is that Cain will run. I'm skeptical about his chances of winning, but I'm bullish about his odds of surprising a lot of people with a strong showing. Every cycle, a select few among the candidates emerge from the presidential scrums with their reputations enhanced. And who knows? Maybe Republicans will decide it takes the former Godfather's boss to take on a political machine some refer to as, "The Chicago Way."