STOCKBRIDGE, Ga. - Herman Cain's handsome glass-walled office overlooks the first fairway of the Eagle's Landing Country Club in this exurb of Atlanta, about 20 miles south of Hartsfield Airport. It is here that the 65-year-old Cain planned to spend what he calls his "cruise control" years -- time spent not exactly in retirement, but at an easier pace than a business career that included stints as CEO of Godfather's Pizza, president of the National Restaurant Association, and chairman of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank.
"Cruise control" it's not. These days, or at least this moment, Herman Cain, long a favorite of Tea Party activists, is one of the hottest names in the Republican primary race. For most of the party, Cain wasn't even a blip on the radar until the May 5 GOP debate in Greenville, South Carolina -- or, more accurately, the moments after the debate, when Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group on Fox News and found near-unanimous agreement that Cain was the winner. "I've done maybe 35 or 40 of these debates for Fox, and I've never had this kind of reaction," Luntz said. "Something very special happened this evening."
Many political insiders viewed the debate mostly as an opportunity for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty to move up into the first tier of GOP candidates. Instead, people left Greenville's Peace Center talking about Herman Cain -- a result that few participants, including Cain himself, could have predicted.
"I was just stunned, shocked," Cain says of the moment he saw, on a green-room television, that Luntz's group declared him the winner. When his staff hurried to take him to the media room for an interview with Sean Hannity, Cain asked for a few minutes to sit down, catch his breath, and collect his thoughts. Although he has had some success as a talk-radio host in recent years, he had no idea of the impression he would make on viewers. "You know how fickle people's perceptions can be," he says.
To call Cain an unlikely candidate is an understatement. He is black, southern, a survivor of a fairly recent and very serious bout with cancer, a failed candidate for U.S. Senate, and a man best known as the chief executive officer of a mid-size national pizza chain. Yes, Republicans are drawn to captains of industry -- but the pizza industry?
And yet Republican audiences listen to Cain and walk away saying he makes a lot of sense. Last week I attended a Cain fundraiser at a private home north of Atlanta. (To call it a private home doesn't quite do it justice; it was a 42,000 square-foot Italianate mansion complete with its own lifesize replica of main street in cowboy-era Tombstone, Arizona, with Cain standing in the recreated Oriental saloon to greet big donors.) I was there on the agreement that I not quote anyone, but what the attendees told me about Cain was very similar to what the Fox focus group members said. They find him genuine, like his plainspeaking manner, and believe he has commonsense solutions to the nation's problems.
A conversation with Cain doesn't go very far before he gives you his prescription for the current economic mess. "Number one: stimulate the economy with direct stimuli," he says. "Lower corporate tax rates, lower personal income tax rates -- they work. Take the capital gains tax rate to zero. Suspend taxes on foreign repatriated profits. Provide a real payroll tax holiday -- 6.2 percent for the employee, 6.2 percent for the employer. That's the Social Security piece. Do it for a year. Then put a bow around it and make those rates permanent. You do that and you remove the veil of uncertainty -- businessmen will go crazy. They will start investing again."
Cain is also a devotee of the Fair Tax, a proposal popular with some Tea Partiers that would replace the current tax system with a federal retail sales tax. He doesn't care if a lot of policy experts, including conservative policy experts, say it won't work. At the debate, when Fox's Chris Wallace brought up those expert opinions, Cain shot back, "Well, Chris, with all due respect, your experts are dead wrong."
In the same debate, Cain also showed what appeared to be a startling lack of engagement in key foreign policy issues when asked why he has not put forth his plan for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. "I'm not privy to a lot of confidential information," Cain said. If elected president, Cain continued, he would gather the generals and the experts, talk it over, and then come up with a policy. "The experts and their advice and their input would be the basis for me making that decision," he said.
Some observers and analysts saw that as evidence that Cain hadn't grappled with the issue. But supporters saw it as a refreshing evidence that Cain is prepared to admit that he doesn't know everything, and that he will take a businessman's approach to solving problems like Afghanistan. His answer, which some saw as a gaffe, was an actual plus for those viewers.
The businessman's approach is the key to Cain's campaign. If elected president, Cain pledges, he will analyze problems, gather the best people to reach solutions, and then implement those solutions with crisp executive authority. "I've actually run stuff," he says. "I've actually fixed stuff. I've actually solved stuff."
It's an appeal reminiscent of businessman Ross Perot's popular but vague 1992 pledge to "look under the hood" of government and find solutions. To some degree, it works; remember that the independent Perot stunned the experts by winning 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election. In Cain's case, it has its roots in a long career in business, and in particular his years as the top man at Godfather's Pizza.
The chain was losing money and seemed headed to failure when Cain took over in 1986. If you listen to Cain describe how he analyzed Godfather's problems, how he came up with solutions, and how he implemented those solutions -- listen to that and you'll hear the pizza version of what Cain says he would do as president.
"I spent the first 60 days of my time at Godfather's listening, to figure out what we needed to do," Cain says. "It wasn't complicated: get back to basics."
"Number one, we had too many products on the menu. We had gotten away from our core product. We had too many crusts. We had the original Godfather's pizza crust, we had the original Godfather's pizza, and then we had three imitations that looked like Pizza Hut, Domino's, and Little Caesar's. I got rid of the three imitations, and we got back to focus on the one we were good at."
"Number two, we simplified the operations, because if you simplify the operations, you make it possible for the people in the restaurant to execute exceptionally well every day. When you've got too much stuff, they can't execute."
"Number three, we instilled in the company that we could, in fact, win again."
Cutting an organization down to its core mission, sharpening the focus of its employees, and then re-energizing those employees -- it's a strategy that has obvious resonance for a man who wants to run an overextended and deficit-ridden United States government. "So in your view," I said to Cain, "America has too many crusts?"
"Yes!" Cain exclaimed, breaking into a long laugh. "America has too many crusts! And we've got to simplify things, clarify things so that we can achieve real progress."
"You get it!" Cain beamed.
A mostly unspoken but possibly consequential factor in Cain's appeal to conservative voters is his race. Cain is a black Republican -- a pretty rare thing in itself -- seeking to challenge the nation's first black president. His audiences are almost entirely white; at the fundraiser, out of about 150 people, I saw one black couple, not counting Cain, his longtime driver, Cain's wife, and his wife's best friend. When you ask Cain's white supporters why they like him, almost none mention race. But occasionally someone will say they would like to see Republicans have a black candidate of their own who could go toe-to-toe with Obama.
I asked Cain for his thoughts on this theory of why he appeals to conservative audiences: First, many Republicans have a soft spot for business candidates. Second, they're particularly drawn to his plain-talk candidacy because they're dissatisfied with the rest of the GOP field. And third, many Republicans have internalized the Democratic/liberal criticism that they oppose Obama because he is black and that whenever they attack the president on this or that issue, the real motivation behind it is race. Herman Cain, they believe, could take it to Obama without all that racial baggage.
"Here's my theory," said Cain, leaning forward in his chair. "Let's talk about the current field of Republican candidates. They can't go after Obama as hard as I can because they're not black. I think that, either subconsciously or deliberately, they are being coached to not say it a certain way, that you're going to be labeled a racist and the liberal media is going to try to bring you down, because they still want to protect their precious Obama."
Cain believes his audiences are a different story. "The voters, they hear my message first, not 'He could take it to Obama,' because they are more concerned about stopping Obama than taking it to Obama," he explained. "This is what I'm hearing and this is what I'm feeling. And the race card is going to be short-lived if Herman Cain gets the nomination."
But wouldn't liberals and Democrats still find a racially-based way to attack Cain? They certainly found a way to attack Clarence Thomas, the black, conservative Supreme Court justice.
"They're going to come after me more viciously than they would a white candidate," Cain responded. "You're right. Clarence Thomas. And so, to use Clarence Thomas as an example, I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through -- for the good of this country." Cain smiled broadly. "I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching."
Finally, there is one more issue that has rarely been discussed about Cain: his age. If elected, Cain would be 67 years old on Inauguration Day 2013 -- the third-oldest man in history to assume the presidency. He would be behind only William Henry Harrison (who caught pneumonia at his inauguration and died) and Ronald Reagan. Also, in 2006, Cain was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer and underwent a grueling chemotherapy treatment at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Today, he says he has been cancer-free ever since and says his age would be a factor "only for the young whippersnappers who don't know anything." The voters might have different ideas.
Cain is not yet officially a candidate. He has scheduled a big rally for May 21 in downtown Atlanta to announce whether or not he will run, and he is telling supporters he wouldn't be planning such a big event simply to say he isn't running. So he is in. Where does he go from here? In the end, it might turn out that the Frank Luntz focus group was the high point of the Cain campaign. Or we might be witnessing the start of a Tea Party-fueled phenomenon with the potential to re-shape the Republican race.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.