CHICAGO — Herman Cain is hardly your everyday politician, but right now, only two months from the casting of the first votes, he has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination, even as roadblocks and doubters pop up at every turn, with sexual harassment allegations the latest crisis for his campaign to address.
But look at the polls, there he is — the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO looking down at Mitt Romney, down at Rick Perry, down at the entire GOP field. Cain not only leads in the first state in the nation to vote, but also in national polls. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll last Tuesday, Cain enjoys 25 percent support among Republican primary voters nationwide, ahead of Romney’s 21 percent, Newt Gingrich’s 10 percent, Ron Paul’s 8 percent, and Perry’s 6 percent.
On Saturday a new Des Moines Register poll showed Cain leading Romney 23 percent to 22 percent in Iowa, even though he has hardly made any campaign visits to the Hawkeye State.
“We’re obviously very excited about that and I think it just goes to show that even though the pundits have been criticizing me for not living in Iowa, we have been working in Iowa and it’s still paying off,” Cain said after the Register poll was released. “So I’m excited about that, but we’re still going back to Iowa and we still have a lot of work to do.”
Still, can he actually manage to grab the GOP nomination? Can this businessman who has suddenly surged to the top of the Republican pack really win it all? Does he even have a legitimate shot at winning the GOP nomination? There are a string of factors that say no he can’t, not, as President Obama himself famously said in his 2008 campaign, “yes we can.”
Let’s start with his operation on the ground. After all, national polls are helpful, but the Republican primary is won by a state-by-state process. From Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina and beyond, a candidate — sooner or later, preferably sooner — has to win a lot of states. And Cain to date has virtually no serious infrastructure in any of the early voting states. Only now is the Cain campaign’s recent influx of donations allowing it to add more staff in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Florida.
Meanwhile, Cain recently embarked on a cross-country swing in an effort to drum up support and win the money he will need to mount a serious fight for the GOP nomination. But the states he visited have not exactly been the key campaign battlegrounds — for instance, Alabama. In addition, the businessman has hit Tennessee, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, Arizona, Iowa, Arkansas, Ohio and Michigan.
A strategy that seems to largely ignore some of the key early states — especially Iowa and New Hampshire — could come back to haunt him. While Cain might hold narrow leads in the national CBS/New York Times poll and the Iowa Des Moines Register poll, he trails Romney in a string of CNN/TIME/ORC polls in some key early states. In Florida, Romney leads him 30 percent to 18 percent. In South Carolina, Romney is ahead 25 percent to 23 percent. And in New Hampshire, Romney holds a far more commanding lead of 40 percent to 13 percent.
Last week a top Republican operative in Iowa, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “Cain has been non-existent here. Even if he could somehow sustain his poll numbers, he has absolutely no — zero, zip, nada — organization to support him.”
In addition, Tina Goff, Cain’s Iowa state director until she left in July, said a few weeks ago 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 brings us to Cain’s war chest — or the alarming lack thereof. In the third quarter of this year, Cain raised a little more than $2.8 million, compared to more than $17 million for Perry and more than $14 million for Romney, who has raised more than $32 million this year altogether.
Like it or not, money matters. This week, for instance, Perry is hitting the airwaves in the nation’s first caucus state of Iowa with a series of new television ads. Cain? Well, he launched a national radio ad that aired on Rush Limbaugh’s show, but he has yet to launch a TV push. Mark Block, Cain’s chief of staff, told CNN Thursday night that the campaign has been raking in the dough so far this month, raising more than $3 million since the start of October.
But critics say his recent road trip is more about selling copies of his book — “This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House” — than it is about making a legitimate bid for the presidency. On Oct. 4, Cain appeared on ABC’s “The View,” a slew of FOX News shows, and other national broadcasts. Ultimately, all the book hawking worked, landing it in the top 10 bestsellers on Amazon.com. Time will tell if it did anything for his campaign.
Then there’s Cain’s demeanor. It is far easier for any candidate to rise up through the polls than it is for them to stay on top. Once a candidate has a bulls-eye on the back, rivals start attacking, the media starts digging, and the glare of the spotlight can quickly turn dark.
Look what happened to Michele Bachmann. Back in August she was flying high, victorious in the Iowa straw poll. Today she’s an afterthought, buried down in the polls after a two-month stretch marred by gaffes, such as when she joked that Hurricane Irene was God’s warning to Washington politicians about deficit problems, and turmoil — her entire New Hampshire staff just quit, blasting her campaign as rude and unresponsive on their way out.
Or look what happened to Perry. In early September the Texas governor was the man to beat, enjoying an impressive surge after his entry into the race a month earlier. Now, as the CBS News/New York Times poll reveals, he too is languishing back in the pack, suffering from a series of shaky debate performances and reckless shoot-from-the-hip comments.
Could Cain become the next candidate to enjoy the limelight before Republican voters turn their affection to someone else in this unpredictable election cycle? To make matters worse, in the past few weeks Cain has made a series of confusing — even inaccurate — comments on issues ranging from his “9-9-9? plan to his stance on abortion, showing signs that he might not be ready for prime time just yet. It got so bad that his staff said they would cut back on his schedule in an effort to give him more rest.
But problems have continued to emerge. On Thursday the New York Times reported on a staff memo that directed people traveling in the same car as Cain, “Do not speak to him unless you are spoken to.” A senior Cain staffer later confirmed to ABC News that, “It’s the same policy for any Secretary of Defense or four-star general. You don’t talk to them unless they talk to you, generally. Sometimes you get guests in the car and they want to talk and talk and talk, and then Mr. Cain wants to prepare for the next interview or the next speech. And he’s very engaging, so it can be a distraction. After a while, he gets to the point where he doesn’t want to talk, but wants to prepare for what he’s doing next.”
Then it got worse. Late Sunday, Politico reported that Cain engaged in “sexually suggestive behavior” when he was president of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990's. The next day Cain fought back, saying that he had been “falsely accused” and he had “never sexually harassed anyone.”
The Cain campaign did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this story.
Despite all the recent red flags, write off Cain as the latest flavor of the week at your own peril.
“We have done this campaign totally different than anybody else,” Cain boasted in Corpus Christi, Texas, last Wednesday. “We’re redefining the political landscape.”
So far at least, he’s right. Cain has now been firmly in the spotlight for the past month since his resounding victory at the Florida straw poll, an event that Perry made a strong push to win. Despite never having held any elective office, Cain has enjoyed strong support among the tea party and has withstood a series of attacks from rivals at recent debates from New Hampshire to Nevada. Despite never making a real push for Iowa, he leads the Hawkeye State at the moment. And even though he suffers from a comparable lack of funds, it is his poll numbers that have surged, not Romney’s.
From Cain’s perspective, all of the doubters and the naysayers are not lost on him.
“According to political ‘experts’ I am just a ‘flavor of the week’ and should have faded away by now,” Cain said in Tuesday’s statement on his lead in the national poll. “The American people are the real experts. They understand that it takes real solutions to move this country forward — not Washington promises.”