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Improbable race of Cain

To be the most poweful man Black, ultraconservative, unversed in politics and leading the pack. Everything is a surprise about Herman Cain's Republican presidential candidacy.

world Updated: Nov 06, 2011 01:22 IST

Herman Cain dates the start of his presidential ambitions to a few minutes before 10 o'clock on the evening of 22 January 1999. His first grandchild, Celena, had just been born and as he held her in his arms he was moved by a sense of calling.

That part is clear. But in all other regards Herman Cain is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable and baffling candidates in the history of US presidential races.

Those qualities have been on full display this week with the eruption of sexual harassment allegations against him. The accusations date back to the 1990s when Cain headed the National Restaurant Association. Three women had complained about inappropriate behaviour included invitations back to his hotel room.

Cain dealt with the allegations violating every rule in the crisis PR rulebook. Politico gave him 10 days to respond, yet when the website broke the story a week ago he responded as though it was the first he'd heard about them.

He then began by denying any knowledge of paying off the women concerned - and then changed his story. "I was able to gradually recall more and more details about what happened 12 years ago," he said on television. He said one of the women had been paid two or three months salary in the deal - we now know it was a full year's renumeration.

PR mistake number one is to eke out your account of what happened, thus prolonging the crisis. Mistake number two is to change your story, making you look duplicitous. Mistake number three - which he's also fallen into royally this week - is to blame other people: in Cain's case his female accuser whose work he snarkily said had not been "up to par", the press and his rival in the presidential competition Rick Perry.


"We live in an era when what you say during a crisis is often more important than what you did to cause it in the first place," says Michael Wissot with the political consultancy Luntz Global. "All this finger-pointing by Cain has got him engaged in petty politics, which is dangerous because the one thing that set him apart was that he was not engaged in petty politics." Or not engaged in politics, period. The single most extraordinary part of the Cain story is that he is a frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination without ever having held public office.

"There's no precedent," says Larry Sabato, at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "There's a reason that parties don't nominate people without experience in office and that's because they don't react well under a crisis - as we're seeing this week."

Another puzzle: Cain came from the sort of background that you'd expect would have directed him more towards a liberal-left background rather than the Republicans. As he says in his new book This Is Herman Cain: "I grew up po', which is even worse than being poor."

His great-great-grandparents were slaves and his father still worked the fields as a young man before becoming a chauffeur. Cain grew up in Atlanta under segregation.

Cutting against that is the driving ambition of Cain the individualist, or the "CEO of self" to use his own catchphrase. He derides the overwhelming African American support for the Democratic party as "brainwashing".

From a young age Cain saw himself as on his own trajectory. He set his American dream on earning a salary of $20,000 - a target he soon surpassed as he rose to be chief executive of Godfather's Pizza.

Cain makes a lot of his time at the fast-food chain. "We turned it around with commonsense principles, and we can turn the country around the same way." Up to a point. He saved the company from bankruptcy, but largely because Cain slashed costs and sacked 400 workers. But it remains a relatively marginal player in the pizza market.

Tea Party Animal
His style of slash-and-burn economics carries real appeal to the Tea Party-fuelled base of the Republican party. Most of Cain's current campaign team came from this organisation and share the Tea Party movement's anti-government and anti-tax principles.

In the first few months of his candidacy he remained obscure but his impressive performance on the Republican debates catapulted his ratings. His "9-9-9" tax policy particularly caught everyone's attention - it replaces all taxes with a flat 9% retail sales tax, 9% individual income tax and 9% business.

What Cain is not is almost more important than what he is. Crucially, he's not Mitt Romney, the other Republican frontrunner who angers the right-wing Tea Party movement because he's too moderate. And he's certainly not Barack Obama, who he castigates as a "socialist".

By capturing the imagination of a roiled Republican base, Cain has already gone much further than anyone expected. The latest polls put him in the lead, well ahead of Romney, though the full fallout of this week's shenanigans has yet to be felt.

Wissot says, "If Cain can weather the sexual harassment allegations and continue to fight off Perry for ownership of the title of Tea Party darling, then he has a chance of winning the nomination."

But there's a long way to go yet. A final puzzle: Cain has virtually no campaign infrastructure in any of those states and his financial war-chest is so small that some wonder whether Cain's efforts amount to nothing more than an elaborate scheme to sell his book.


First Published: Nov 06, 2011 00:11 IST