Cain hopes to show he's able for top role
Rank outsider surges in race for Republican presidential candidacy
Published 09/10/2011 | 05:00
HE is a former pizza chain magnate, the son of a chauffeur and a cleaner, a conservative African-American -- and, to just about everyone's surprise, a strong contender in the Republican presidential race.
As others have begun to falter, Herman Cain has surged into second place in Republican ranks, buoyed by fiery oratory and impressive debate performances, a radical tax plan and a background in business, not politics.
All that, plus the plain-speaking appeal of a man who calls himself "The Hermanator", has suddenly pushed Mr Cain's candidacy into a national spotlight. Some Republicans now believe this is the man to challenge Barack Obama in 2012.
Last week, in the booming southern cadences well known to congregations at the Atlanta Baptist church where he is an associate pastor and gospel singer, he said: "I don't fit the traditional model of what a politician looks like, but I fit the model of what the American people are looking for."
Mr Cain, 66, was speaking after addressing a private meeting of New York financiers, a hard-headed crowd that gave several ovations to the former boss of the Godfathers pizza franchise.
Long viewed as a rank outsider because of his unconventional economic policies, lack of political experience and incendiary views on Muslims in America, he has unexpectedly emerged as a strong standard bearer for many fiscal and social conservatives.
In the past few days, Mr Cain has overtaken Rick Perry, the Texas governor, whose campaign has suddenly stalled. In a survey for CBS News, he tied in first place with long-time front-runner Mitt Romney, on 17 per cent. As several key states bring forward early primaries and caucuses, his surge could not be better timed.
Mr Cain was born in Tennessee and raised in Georgia by working-class parents in an era when everything, from buses to water fountains, was segregated in the south.
He graduated from the predominantly black Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1967 with a mathematics degree and took a postgraduate computer science degree at Purdue University in Indiana, while working as a civilian ballistic weapons analyst for the Navy department.
He began his business career with Coca-Cola, working his way up before being hired by the Pillsbury food empire. There, he turned around the fortunes of America's fourth-largest pizza chain, Godfathers.
In recent years, he has been an economics adviser to Republican politicians, while hosting a conservative talk radio show and delivering motivational speeches. Married for 43 years, he has two children and three grandchildren. Five years ago, he survived colon and liver cancer after surgery and chemotherapy. It is a compelling story told in his memoir This Is Herman Cain.
The book's release comes as some serious conservative commentators are taking a fresh look at his prospects, not least because of his appeal to parts of a black electorate whose support is the bedrock of Barack Obama's re-election campaign. Mr Cain has made the same point, with language that earned the ire of his critics. "Many African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view," he told an interviewer. "I have received some of that same vitriol simply because I am running for the Republican nomination as a conservative."
The "brainwashing" reference enraged black Democratic politicians but Mr Cain has stood by his words and insisted he believes "a third to 50 per cent" of African-Americans could be open to his campaign.
Mr Cain is no stranger to controversy. He caused outrage by saying he would not feel comfortable nominating a Muslim to his cabinet, talking about a "creeping attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government" and supporting opponents of a mosque in Tennessee. He later said his words were variously misconstrued or poorly chosen.
Mr Cain is now laying out a path to electoral victory against better-known and better-financed rivals. It remains a long shot. But even if he does not win the nomination, party heavyweights believe he could have a crucial role as a black cheerleader for the Republican chosen to challenge America's first African-American president.