LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- When Herman Cain walks into a tea party event, he is greeted like a rock star.
"It's him, it's him," spreads across the meeting room.
And so it was here on Thursday. When people approached him, they acted like they knew him. They mentioned his Atlanta radio show. They asked about his book, "They Think You're Stupid
." They told him they are curious about his possible 2012 presidential run.
Cain was in Little Rock for the Arkansas Defending the American Dream Summit
hosted by Americans for Prosperity in Arkansas with about 150 attendees. Cain, the former chairman and deputy chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, is the first of many potential 2012 presidential candidates to form an official exploratory committee.
He is building a grassroots movement by attending small gatherings around the country. Last year, he addressed more than 40 tea party rallies. On Friday, he hits Phoenix for the Tea Party Summit
Cain sells books, videos of his speeches, and bumper stickers at these events. He passes out a pamphlet, "Common Sense Solutions: The People's Platform," which focuses on national security, the fair tax, domestic energy resources, and repealing and replacing "health care deform," among other issues.
Sure, he's a long-shot candidate, and he knows it, but don't discount him.
"Bill Clinton, another long-shot candidate," he told Politics Daily. "People would be nuts to think that a long-shot candidate didn't have a chance to win."
And, he points out, Barack Obama was another long-shot candidate who reached the Oval Office. "He was able to knock off the Clinton machine, that's what I call it, because people got excited about a fresh face and a fresh voice."
But that's no longer the case, in his view.
"There's nothing behind the voice or the message," he said. "This administration is in free fall. The country is in a state of anxiety and the administration doesn't have a handle on it all."
Cain initially became known in political circles thanks to Bill Clinton. During the 1993 health care debate, he confronted the president at a town meeting in Kansas City.
He asked Clinton about the "employer mandate" -- the proposal that most employers would have to offer health insurance to their workers -- in the health care reform package. Cain said it would cost jobs. Clinton said subsidies would help small business. Cain didn't back down and told Clinton, "Quite honestly, your calculation is inaccurate. In the competitive marketplace it simply doesn't work that way."
Cain supports the fair tax
, which, among other things, would end current federal taxes and replace them with a national sales tax. Another potential 2012 candidate, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee
, also supports the idea. Cain said the two have a common bond where the fair tax is concerned because both of them know how to articulate and defend it.
"We need the fair tax to stimulate the economy," he said.
Cain sees the tea party movement getting stronger especially after the 2010 midterm elections. He sees more people who have never been involved in the electoral process leading into 2012
. And that's critical for change, he said.
"I'm optimistic," he said. "I see it getting stronger and getting bigger everywhere I go."
That's in no small part due to Sarah Palin
, who has energized the conservative moment. "She has definitely been a plus," he said. "That's why liberals hate her because conservatives love her."
But some people think Cain is the one to watch – or at least learn more about.
Lynn Holberton of Hot Springs Village, Ark., bought two of Cain's books Thursday. She knew about him because her daughter, who lives in Ohio, had heard him on the radio.
"She told me 'We should keep our eye on him,' and I liked what I've read and I like that he has a business background," Holberton said. "This country needs someone with business experience instead of political experience."