Once considered a bottom-tier candidate, with no chance at the White House, Herman Cain is surging.
He came in second in the ABC News-Washington Post poll Tuesday, tying Texas Gov. Rick Perry with 16 percent of support from “leaned” Republicans, behind Mitt Romney with 25 percent. Cain quadrupled his support from a month ago when he was at 4 percent, while Romney didn’t budge.
His win last month at the Florida GOP P5 straw poll - in which Perry heavily invested – was also a big victory for his campaign, which has none of the financial backing or staffing of the other candidates’ campaigns.
He still has low name recognition, especially compared to rivals Romney and Perry, but his rapidly rising stock has many people asking a simple question: Who is Herman Cain?
He’s best known as the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and often boasts on the campaign trail that he saved the Omaha, Neb.-based from bankruptcy. Cain, 65, also worked at Burger King, turning around failing stores in the Philadelphia region, was the CEO of the National Restaurant Association, and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Mo. He earned a master’s degree in computer science (1971) from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., after majoring in math at Morehouse College, the all-male historically black school in Atlanta. He also has ordained Baptist minister and conservative radio host on his resume.
He has never held elective office but sees that as a bonus, telling voters at every opportunity, “the American people are ready for someone who is a “businessman, problem solver, first” rather than a politician.
Cain is also a survivor of stage-four colon and liver cancer. He lives in Atlanta with wife Gloria. They have two children and three grandchildren. Unlike almost all campaign spouses, Cain’s wife of 43 years does not join him on the stump.
Cain told The Daily Caller, that his wife is “one of the most unassuming, not-looking-for-the-limelight-people you’ve ever met,” adding not to “expect the traditional amount of exposure you normally get from a campaign wife.”
Spencer Wiggins worked for Cain at Burger King, following him to Omaha when Cain took over Godfather’s and says Cain is incredibly persuasive and motivational, bringing success to both companies.
Wiggins met Cain after being recruited by Burger King to join the company when he was an executive at Kraft Foods. Wiggins told the company he wasn’t interested in working for a fast-food company and not interested in meeting Cain, saying it would be a “waste of time” for both of them.
But Cain was persistent and convinced him to stop by, greeting Wiggins with a warm, “Spencer Wiggins, my man. I’ve been trying to get you in here.”
He said it was as though Cain had “known him all his life,” and after a two and a half hour conversation, Cain convinced him to come to Burger King. Likewise, when Cain moved to Godfather’s, Wiggins had no intention of moving to Omaha, saying it was not in “his top 500 places to go.”
But after a visit with Cain, where the weather was so bad they couldn’t even leave the hotel for dinner, Cain was still able to convince him to move to the Godfather’s headquarters in Nebraska.
Cain eventually bought the company with investors and went from president to CEO, although it’s difficult to measure his subsequent track record for the privately owned company. Godfather’s Pizza doesn’t “disclose annual sales figures or financial information,” it said in a statement.
The statement added that the chain takes “no position on political candidates, but we do make great pizza.”
The St. Petersburg Times’ Politifact reviewed Cain’s assertion that he rescued the company and found that he is “largely correct.”
“They had to be very innovative to compete with the big three and with the little guys. They couldn’t rest on their laurels,” John Correll, a pizza industry consultant, told the St. Petersburg Times. “For a number of years, Herman Cain and his management team were able to pull that off.
Former colleague and now close friend Wiggins said Cain was frank with him before he took the job, telling him the company had “one foot on a banana peel and one foot in the grave,” something Cain often repeats now. But he told Wiggins that he thought they could turn it around.
Wiggins said Cain urged his other employees to get into the kitchens themselves – which Cain did as well – and help make pizza. He used motivational speeches to help the downtrodden employees and franchise owners and catchy phrases such as telling his employees to SIN or “solve it now.”
His speech-making prowess helped him win the Florida straw poll with the crowd clearly wowed by his address. Cain’s rivals received some cordial applause, but there was a roar when Cain finished his speech.
At Godfather’s, Cain closed down low performing franchises as CEO, Wiggins said, but he was able to “turn the ship around.” The company lost jobs then but, Wiggins said, Cain created more than he lost under his stewardship. He hired employees who wanted to be at their restaurants, were focused on customer service and didn’t just see the position as a JOB, or “just on board,” Wiggins said.
Wiggins said Cain’s business success would make him a qualified president because “there is nothing superficial about him” and he’s always been humble. Wiggins added that if someone tells Cain he can’t do something, it just “stimulates him more.”
Cain’s catchy phrases and gift for the gab helped him in his pizza parlors, as it’s helping him now on the stump.
GOP political consultant Brian Donahue said Cain’s oratorical skills explain his surge in the polls. Donahue says Cain has “done an excellent job of boiling his message down to an emotional and concise way that people understand. While “the front-runners” have spent “much of the time attacking each other” in the debates, Cain has used the forums to present “his vision and his message.”
“You are seeing a lot of the populist support beginning to coalesce around Herman Cain,” Donahue said. “All signs point that this will come down to Perry and Romney, however, the surge for Herman Cain is indicative of the populist Tea Party activists sending a message to the establishment that they aren’t going to fall in line that easily. They are going to continue to support a candidate that looks and feels anti-establishment and I think they are going to do that until they feel their voice has been heard loud and clear.”
After Cain bought Godfather’s, he got into a well-publicized discussion with then-President Bill Clinton, who was in Omaha holding a town hall to promote his health care plan. Cain told Clinton that he would have to get rid of employees to pay for the health care of other employees.
“On behalf of all those business owners that are in a situation similar to mine, my question is quite simply, if I’m forced to do this, what will I tell those people whose jobs I will have to eliminate?” Cain asked Clinton.
They went back and forth until Clinton told Cain to send his calculations to the White House.
Cain’s been pushing his “999″ economic plan on the stump and on his book tour. It would change the tax code to have a 9 percent business flat tax, a 9 percent personal income flat tax, and a 9 percent national sales tax. Economic analysts have said it could affect Social Security as well as hurt the poor and middle class, but Cain says the plan “won’t touch Social Security.”
Despite Cain’s jolt in the polls, he’s not spending his days in Iowa and New Hampshire, instead dropping by Manhattan and doing the talk -show circuit promoting his new book. Cain told ABC News he’s not shunning the early states and his strategy will ensure he is in the top three in Iowa and New Hampshire while winning South Carolina and Florida.
Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa GOP who founded the Iowa Republican website, said he thinks Cain is “making a mistake by not campaigning in the early states.”
“I think it is a huge missed opportunity for him,” Robinson said. “Instead of doing TV show, TV show, TV show, he could come to Iowa where he would probably pull very big crowds and sell his candidacy that way.”
Cain’s strategy was one reason many staffers left this summer, saying the candidate was not putting the effort in those states that’s needed.
Tina Goff, who was the Iowa state director until she left in July, told ABC News that they were “asked to come up with our own strategy for our state and he wasn’t following the strategy we came up with.”
That strategy? “Visiting Iowa more. We had come up with a 99-counties strategy, visit all 99 counties. He just really wasn’t willing to do that,” said Goff, who worked on Fred Thompson’s 2008 campaign as well as Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s.
Goff added that she wanted to work for Cain because he “inspired” her, but he’s not qualified to be president, she said.
“He’s a Baptist preacher, he’s very motivating, but I think he’s more of a motivational speaker and he doesn’t have the background or information to be able to run our country,” Goff said.
Cain hasn’t been back to Iowa since the Ames Straw Poll in August. He said he has been to the state 18 times and although he doesn’t have an exact date, he plans to return in the “next several weeks.”
Matt Murphy, who was the New Hampshire state director, cited the same reasons for leaving. Murphy told ABC News that he had “strategic differences about how much time was spent in the early states.”
He told campaign manager Mark Block that “New Hampshire was an ideal state for a candidate like Herman Cain with low name recognition, not a lot of money,” but he wasn’t able to make the case so he left.
Cain’s press secretary, J.D. Gordon told ABC News, “Iowa is important to them” and the campaign is “running a national strategy.”
Despite the lack of campaigning in the early states, his poll numbers make Cain a contender. If the Tea Party coalesces around him, he could continue to rise and be the anti-Romney, which FreedomWorks’ supporters are actively looking for, spokesman Adam Brandon said.
For FreedomWorks Tea Party-inclined supporters, Brandon said, Cain “checks all the boxes.” They like his 999 plan and that he’s a “straight talker” and “authentic” compared to Romney, whom they see as “more of a politician than authentic,” Brandon said.
They want to support whichever candidate who can take on Romney but, Brandon said, they will only support Cain if he also shows that he “can build a credible campaign through the early states.”
FreedomWorks doesn’t traditionally endorse in presidential elections but they might, Brandon said, if it becomes a two man race and one of the men is Romney.
Amy Kremer, the chairman of the Tea Party Express, calls Cain a “Tea Party candidate,” but it’s too early for the movement to coalesce around a candidate.
“He’s been on the frontlines of this movement for the last couple of years fighting the same conservative causes we are all fighting so he has a lot of support out there,” she said, “but it’s too early to tell.”
ABC News’ Susan Archer contributed to this report.