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Pizza mogul Herman Cain, the unlikely Republican frontrunner

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2011-10-25

A conservative African-American CEO of a successful pizza chain, Herman Cain has no political experience, low name recognition and a campaign with little cash and even less staff. But he's the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nod.

In a quirky field of Republican presidential contenders that includes a foster mother to 23, a former Obama administration employee, and a doctor who advocates the legalisation of heroin and prostitution, Herman Cain is the unlikeliest candidate of all.

A conservative African-American radio personality and former CEO of a successful pizza chain called Godfather’s, the 65-year-old Cain has little political experience, relatively low name recognition, and a campaign with little cash and even less staff.

But in the game of musical chairs that seems to determine who is leading the Republican field on any given day, it is now Cain’s time in the frontrunner’s seat. Capitalising on a lack of enthusiasm for presumptive nominee Mitt Romney and a string of shaky debate performances by Texas Governor Rick Perry, Cain has used his humor-inflected brand of populism, business credentials, and Washington-outsider status to surge to the top of the pack; recent polls show Cain tying with Romney or trailing by just one point in Republican preferences nation-wide and beating Romney in key states like Iowa, Florida, Ohio, and South Carolina.

In the early phase of the campaign for the nomination, Cain coasted on witty debate performances and interviews, as well as appearances to promote his new book (exuberantly titled “This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House”).

But now that Cain has made it into the first tier of conservatives vying to unseat Obama, press, pundits, and rivals have started scrutinising his positions more closely – and the future of his candidacy depends on how he navigates that attention.

A ‘lean and mean’ approach to politics

That Cain has become something of an overnight political success without any background in politics can be attributed to Republican voters’ dissatisfaction with the candidates who have been front and centre, according to political scientist John Fortier of prominent Washington DC-based think tank Bipartisan Policy Centre. “Despite the fact that Romney’s doing well, there’s hunger on the Republican side for a more authentic conservative,” Fortier explained. “Cain is very charismatic and outspoken, and he more or less has not strayed from traditional conservative principles.”

Romney and Perry, on the other hand, are frequently accused of having shifted their positions on issues from abortion to healthcare to immigration during lengthy careers that have led them from governors’ mansions to the presidential campaign trail.

Indeed, Cain has been able to hone his image as an American success story without political baggage. Having grown up poor in Georgia, Cain went on to earn degrees in mathematics and computer science. Before presiding over his restaurant franchise, he chaired the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Missouri.

“There’s appeal to being an outsider,” Fortier assessed. “And in this election, even more than others, the idea of a businessman is attractive: someone who can balance a budget and make tough economic decisions.”

Cain is aware of that allure. “I’m trying to run this campaign like a start-up business, which means lean and mean,” he told journalists in New York earlier this month. Indeed, the candidate has not made the rounds of typical meet-and-greet events at restaurants and factories or employed the usual army of volunteers and consultants.

But Cain has managed to turn his reluctance to engage in classic campaigning into a niche amid a crop of candidates who have increasingly seemed to be clawing at each other for a bit of the spotlight. Cain’s now-famous economic proposal, the “9-9-9” tax plan, is emblematic of his pared-down, no-nonsense approach to politics: the reform would set individual and business income tax rates, as well as a national sales tax rate, at 9 percent, getting rid of all other federal taxes.

Cain’s has presented other simple, catchy ideas that have endeared him to Tea Party supporters who favour fiscal and constitutional conservatives: he has said that if elected, he would require staff to keep a copy of the Constitution, cancel half the traditional inaugural balls (which he called “a waste of time”), and combat any attempt to use Shariah law in US courts.

Another, though less quantifiable, possible reason for Cain’s popularity stems from the rarity of a having a black Republican presidential candidate. The party has recently intensified efforts to encourage conservative candidates of colour, and according to Fortier, “there are a number of Republican voters who don’t like the president’s policies, but are tolerant and open-minded, and think it’s a good thing for there to be an African-American Republican presidential candidate”.

That may explain why Cain’s rivals for the nomination have been reluctant to attack him with the same ferocity they have unleashed on one another. In the debate this week, candidate Rick Santorum prefaced his criticism of Cain’s tax plan with “Herman’s well-meaning, and I love his boldness”, while Perry softened his jab with an even more effusive disclaimer: “Herman, I love you, brother.”

All style, no substance?

But if other candidates have greeted Cain’s rise with smiles and shrugs, commentators have been less indulgent. Prominent political analyst Ron Faucheux called Cain’s latest debate performance “unconvincing and superficial”, while top newspapers have lately been awash with stories detailing recent gaffes – particularly Cain’s statement during an interview with major TV channel NBC that “he was not familiar with the neoconservative movement”, as well as his proposal to build a border fence that would electrocute those who tried to cross illegally (a joke, he later said).

Also raising eyebrows is Cain’s unapologetic lack of foreign policy expertise. He has argued that a commander-in-chief can surround himself with international relations specialists, and that knowing, as he cheekily phrased it, “who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” is not necessary. The comment was the source of a shared chuckle at a high-level diplomatic meeting two days later; in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai joked to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Cain’s remark – which he summed up as “all the ’stans whatever” – “wasn’t right…but anyway, that’s how politics are”.

Even Cain's "outsider" image has come under doubt: The New York Times recently reported that from 1996 to 1999, Cain worked as a Washington lobbyist, focusing on issues related to the restaurant industry and making high-profile contacts within the Republican party.

Meanwhile, the candidate has been forced to start clarifying his proposals and positions. Responding to claims that his “9-9-9” plan would raise taxes on poor and middle-class Americans, Cain acknowledged in an interview with NBC that “some people will pay more”. And pressed on his staunch pro-life stance on abortion, Cain conceded to Piers Morgan on CNN that “it’s not the government's role ... to make that decision” – a remark that Iowa conservative Bob Vander Plaats slammed as “a pro-choice position”.

A ‘credible alternative’ to Obama?

In order to address concerns that Cain does not have a firm enough grasp of even the conservative platform, the candidate’s campaign has recently announced the addition of policy advisors.

But many pundits predict that Cain’s frontrunner status will be fleeting, because Republican primary voters will ultimately see him as vulnerable against Obama in a general election. “He would have to do a lot to convince people that his background and credentials are enough to be a credible alternative to the president,” said Fortier.

Thomas Mann, a specialist in US elections at the Brookings Institution, a prominent public policy organisation in Washington, is even more unequivocal: “He is so obviously unqualified for the position that his leading the polls is a commentary on the field of candidates and the rationality of the Republican primary electorate.”

For the moment, though, that electorate is placing him above his more seasoned rivals – a fact that enables Cain to brush off criticism. “You know you must be doing something right when you get a lot of arrows in your back,” Cain said last week in a speech to lawmakers in the state of New Hampshire. “But this is the first time that arrows have felt really, really good.”

Date created : 2011-10-21


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