Two days after Herman Cain’s upset win in the Florida straw poll, he sits with a lone campaign staffer in the restaurant of Atlanta’s Four Seasons hotel, nursing a morning glass of white wine and smiling broadly at passers-by.
The elegant hotel is about 30 miles from Cain’s suburban campaign headquarters in Stockbridge, but a world away from the segregated Atlanta where Cain grew up, when his father worked as a driver for Robert Woodruff, one of the city’s most prominent white businessmen and the CEO of Coca-Cola.
Cain, the CEO-turned-radio host-turned-presidential candidate, is somewhere between on top of the world—after his unexpected win in Florida—and furious that nobody in the national press seems to be taking him seriously despite his runaway victory.
“Some people want to say I’m the none-of-the-above candidate. Some people want to say there’s still unhappiness with the field. That is bullfeathers!” he tells me. “The American people are saying, ‘This guy’s credible, we like what he says.’ OK?”
Cain chalks up the current dominance of Rick Perry and Mitt Romney in the polls and the press to the money both men are spending and the media’s fixation on a two-man storyline.
Instead of focusing on Cain’s win Saturday, most news articles were devoted to Perry’s surprising loss.
“The media is still in denial that there are more than two people in the Republican primary election,” Cain says. “They are still stuck on the old model that you have to have been a governor or a senator.
“The media has been trying to promote [Perry] like the media has been trying to suck Chris Christie into it.”
But even with only a sliver of press attention, Cain pulled out a 37 percent win in Florida to Perry’s 15 percent and Romney’s 14 percent.
So what did the former Godfather’s Pizza boss do to break through the field and pull off an upset?
“I did it the old-fashioned way,” he says. “I rented a bus and I went around the state most of the week talking to people and sharing my message of common-sense solutions.”
Specifically, he credits his bumper-sticker friendly “9-9-9” tax plan for getting people’s attention early in the race. The proposal would eliminate the current tax code and replace it with a 9 percent tax on all corporate and individual income, along with a 9 percent national sales tax. “I can’t get out of the car before the bellman or someone is saying, ‘Congratulations, Mr. Cain. 9-9-9, 9-9-9,’” he says.
Cain contends his plan would cut taxes for most people without reducing the revenue coming into the Treasury because he would mop up individuals and corporations who now are paying no taxes. He also says his idea dumps the convoluted tax code and replaces it with a predictable formula.
David Easlick, a member of the Collier County, Fla., Republican Party, met Cain for the first time last week outside a local hotel and voted for him in the straw poll. Easlick had planned to vote for Perry but changed his mind when he heard Cain speak at the convention. “It was the most moving speech I have ever heard in my life,” he says. “It was almost religious.”
Easlick calls talk of Cain’s win as a GOP protest vote “absolute nonsense” and credits the “genius” of his 9-9-9 plan—and Cain’s straight-talking style in delivering it. ”If he can get the money, he can get elected,” Easlick insists.
But getting the money will be an uphill battle for Cain, whose small-dollar operation raised a little more than $2 million in the first six months of the year, compared with the more than $18 million Romney hauled in.
In addition to Cain’s anemic fundraising, winning the nomination seems all the more difficult in light of single-digit showings in national polls, the fact that he’s never won an election before, and Republican voters’ habit of withholding their votes from candidates they don’t think can win.
Cain insists he can win the GOP nomination. But if he doesn’t, he has no plans to run on a third-party ticket in 2012.
“No. Nope. It’s too difficult. It requires too much money, too many resources,” he says. “You’ll divide the conservative vote, divide the independent vote, and the liberals win again.”
When I ask him to do a little word association game, he has a few choice words for some of his opponents.
For Rick Perry: “Politician.”
Mitt Romney: “Politician. I’m going to give you the same answer for all of them. They’re all politicians. It’s more of the same.”
Donald Trump, whom Cain will meet on Oct. 3: “Promoter.”
Barack Obama: “Non-leader.”
When I ask Cain if President Obama, with his sliding poll numbers, has made it easier or more difficult for another African-American to be elected president, Cain says neither.
“Is there a thimble-full of people out there who are going to be reluctant to vote for me because I’m black and because of Obama? Yes,” he says. “I just remind them of the first 43 presidents who were all white. You didn’t have any duds in that group? I think we did.”
With his Florida win behind him, Cain now vows to avoid the fate that befell Michele Bachmann after the Iowa straw poll—becoming the GOP’s flavor of the day, only to lose momentum once the press turns its sights on another, shinier object.
“She didn’t leverage it the way that I am going to leverage it,” he says, explaining that he’ll unveil a new piece of his economic platform at the next GOP debate.
"I did it the old-fashioned way. I rented a bus."
As for his future, Cain says he would consider a vice presidential spot on the GOP ticket, but not for just any candidate: “It comes down to chemistry.”
No matter how the campaign ends up, Cain says he believes his late father, whom he watched go to work as a chauffeur every day more than 50 years ago, would be proud.
“He’s up in heaven dancing,” Cain says. “I can assure you he’s up there dancing.”