Herman Cain has made one high-profile blunder after another since his unlikely surge to the top of the GOP presidential polls. By the normal rules of political discourse, he should be back to peddling pepperoni any day now.
He has somehow managed to emerge unscathed—but his team is determined to stop the bleeding.
“We’re trying to slow down a little bit, make sure he’s rested, make sure he’s focused,” says J.D. Gordon, the campaign’s vice president for communications. The goal is to achieve a “more deliberate pace…so we don’t make those kinds of mistakes.”
Gordon says his boss has been doing as many as seven or eight events a day, “and when you do that and don’t use a Teleprompter, sometimes you can make a mistake… People understand he’s not a career politician; he’s very spontaneous, they know how fast he’s going. People give him more leeway than they would someone who’s in Congress or a governor.”
If the polls are any indication, that’s probably true. In a Fox News poll out Wednesday, Cain was still leading the pack with 24 percent, with Mitt Romney at 20, Newt Gingrich at 12 and Rick Perry at 10.
The admission that Cain is making too many unforced errors—and the adoption of a plan to fix that—amounts to a significant reset for a long-shot who took off like a rocket and landed a “Yes We Cain!” headline on the cover of Newsweek. Cain had requests from 25 national television shows the week after winning the Florida straw poll in late September—and his small coterie of aides clearly was overwhelmed.
How can an underfunded candidate who has barely shown up in the early primary states and been relentlessly pounded by the media not be sinking like a stone?
The answer, at least in part, is that many Republican voters don’t trust the media, so they discount the stories that essentially say Cain doesn’t know what he’s talking about. They don’t trust the Beltway establishment, so they brush off criticism from the likes of Karl Rove. They don’t trust political leaders, so a businessman who hasn’t played the game (except for a Georgia race in which he got clobbered) holds a special appeal in this anger-fueled environment.
Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who calls Cain “an even bet” to win the nomination, says, “He’s the only guy who talks like he’s not a politician and, yeah, he screws up occasionally.” When Trippi managed Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, he says, “We were gaffe-ing every other day” and it didn’t seem to matter for months. “The further away we were from the actual vote, the better we did. Our mistakes got magnified the closer we got to the voting.”
Dan Schnur, who runs the politics institute at the University of Southern California, also cites the calendar. “Herman Cain is not yet a presidential candidate in the minds of most voters,” he says. “He’s a vessel through which they’re expressing their unhappiness with the way politics is practiced.” That could change, says Schnur, but for now “one reason they’re willing to look past some of the difficulties he’s gotten himself into is they’re using him to send a message.”
Well, maybe. But Cain’s own message has been awfully muddled lately.
He told Piers Morgan that abortion was “a choice that that family or that mother has to make,” and “not me as president. Not some politician. Not some bureaucrat.” He later insisted he wasn’t changing his pro-life position.
Gordon concedes this was a misstep—Cain was “really tired” in the midst of seven interviews that day, he says—but defends the candidate’s language. “He didn’t say anything that was inconsistent with his beliefs. But he was taken out of context by people who want to distort it for political gain.”
Cain told Wolf Blitzer after the recent Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange that he’d consider trading hundreds of Gitmo detainees for one U.S. soldier, but later walked it back. That was a mistake Cain would not have made “if he’d been rested,” Gordon says. “Mr. Cain was only going on about four hours’ sleep. He did correct it right away—he would not negotiate with terrorists.”
The bumbling didn’t end there. Cain said he was joking about wanting to build an electrified border fence that would kill illegal immigrants, but then said he wanted a fence and, well, it could be electrified. He struggled to defend his 9-9-9 plan against widespread criticism that it would raise taxes on most people who aren’t rich before modifying the proposal to make exceptions for the poor.
The Herminator has even jokingly advertised his ignorance, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network that he would proudly say he didn’t know if asked to name the president of “Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.”
In fact, one of the appealing things about Cain the campaigner is that he seems to be having fun. He’s less cautious and calculating than, say, Romney, projecting the upbeat persona of a man who has beaten Stage 4 colon cancer.
When a candidate is hit with so many negative stories in such a compressed period of time, voters (especially Republicans) wonder whether the press has an agenda. Most journalists had treated Cain as an amusing sideshow, after all, so his rise confounds their standing as professional pundits.
What’s left of the GOP in-crowd isn’t wild about the former pizza executive. “Cain has had a number of misstatements,” Rove declared on Fox News. “I think it has created an image of him as not being up to this task…that’s really deadly for a presidential candidate.” Cain accused Rove of mounting “a deliberate attempt to damage me because I am not, quote unquote, the establishment choice.”
Gordon says Cain has raised $1 million a week since Oct. 1, more than his combined total for the rest of the campaign. In terms of tactics, though, Cain’s behavior has been confounding.
He has been to Iowa just once since the Ames straw poll in August, spending time instead in late-voting southern states for what detractors view as a glorified book tour. Former aides paint a picture of near-chaos, telling The New York Times that they couldn’t even get bumper stickers and that Cain once stood up a roomful of big-money donors in Tennessee.
Gordon explains the lack of focus on early primaries and caucuses by saying that “we’re running a national strategy, not a one- or two-state strategy.” But the simple fact is that presidential nominations are won one state at a time.
Does such an unorthodox approach have a prayer of succeeding? Cain, for his part, told Sean Hannity, “The voice of the people is more powerful than the voice of the media…Message is more powerful than money.”
That remains to be seen. The Cain bubble may still pop before the Iowa caucuses. But every conventional attempt to stick a pin in it has failed.