Herman Cain, the GOP Wild Card

The former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza wants to upend the race for the 2012 Republican nomination.

Any day now, one of the many Republican worthies who long to be president will make an announcement, everyone else will follow in rapid succession, and the 2012 presidential campaign will officially be under way. Feels like it is already, doesn’t it? And has been for eons? Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney never stopped running. Newt Gingrich has been running since the ’90s. The rest of the field is likely to include Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, and the list only gets duller from there—none could be accused of inciting a crowd.

Are we doomed to a dull campaign? Not if the Hermanator has his way.

If you don’t attend Tea Party rallies or listen to political talk radio, the name Herman Cain may not register. Cain intends to rectify that. He’s planning to seek the GOP nomination, so he’s spreading his blustery, relentlessly upbeat right-wing social and economic message, which can be heard weeknights from 7 to 10 on WSB in Atlanta. Cain is so exuberantly confident of his message that he has upgraded its status: he bestows upon audiences not speeches or talking points but “The Hermanator Experience.” He’s even trademarked the phrase.

Truth be told, what distinguishes Cain’s message is less its content—“From the standpoint of our conservative beliefs and values, Sarah Palin and I are probably identical,” he told me—than the person supplying it. Cain is a 65-year-old retired African American pizza-company CEO who sits on several corporate boards, including Whirlpool’s, and entered politics only as a late-life hobby. But he’s serious about running for president. To a bland field, he’d add charisma, a compelling story, and some craziness.

Cain was born to working-class parents in Georgia and earned a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College, then a master’s in computer science from Purdue. He got a job doing work for the Navy on fire-control systems for ships and fighter planes, but gravitated to business—Coca-Cola, Pillsbury, and Burger King—and eventually became CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, which he ran for 10 years.

His entrance into national politics was a fluke—albeit, if he runs, an enormously beneficial one. In 1994, Cain, then still CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, participated in a town-hall meeting that Bill Clinton held to drum up support for his flagging health-care plan. He challenged the president’s claim that restaurateurs would bear only a marginal new cost. Clinton objected, but Cain wouldn’t relent. “I’d had my financial people run the numbers,” he told me. The Wall Street Journal published them, and after Clinton’s plan collapsed, Newsweek identified Cain as one of its “saboteurs”—a badge of honor, especially among conservatives today.

It wasn’t a desire for an audience but frustration with Washington, Cain says, that led him to politics. He sought Georgia’s Republican Senate nomination in 2004, finishing second. A radio executive who heard him campaign recognized a natural, offered him a show, and from thence the Hermanator blossomed.

Cain is a born talker, with a rich baritone that sounds uncannily like the actor Samuel L. Jackson. He’s also a showman, and utterly uninhibited. Recently, he survived Stage 4 cancer, and claims he wouldn’t have under Obamacare. Although often outrageous, he has a shrewd sense of his appeal. At a GOP confab in New Orleans last year, Cain railed against liberals, who, he said, slander conservatives as “racist, redneck tea-baggers.” He paused for effect, then brought the house down: “I had to go look in the mirror to see if I missed something!”

Last year, Cain addressed more than 40 Tea Party rallies, hit all the early presidential states, and became a YouTube sensation. He pops up regularly on Fox News. He has devoted followers—on Twitter, on the radio, and in the real world too. He calls himself the “dark horse.” People love it. In December, he was the surprise choice for 2012 GOP nominee in a reader poll on the conservative Web site RedState.com, narrowly edging out Palin. “I’m 70, 80 percent there,” he told me. The only question is money. If he can raise enough, he’ll get in the race.

Cain would surely enliven the proceedings, and might even steal a debate or two. But is he for real? Maybe. “The people posting about Cain on Facebook and Twitter are the activists I look to for the pulse of the Tea Party,” Tim Albrecht, a top aide to Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, told me. “They’ve taken an increased interest in him.” Get ready, America, for The Hermanator Experience®.