STORY CITY, IOWA — Herman Cain, a retired businessman who rescued the Godfather's Pizza chain from peril in the late '80s, was holding his final meet-and-greet of the day at the Royal Cafe, a modest restaurant with a retirement home on its second floor. Earlier that day, he'd visited a firehouse in Iowa Falls and a "tea party" gathering in Marshallville.
About 40 people, many of them elderly, sipped pink lemonade and listened politely as Cain explained why he should be the next Republican presidential nominee.
"I have a secret weapon to get stuff done," said Cain, 65. "Make sure you're working on the right problem, and assign the right resources."
It's a capitalist's formula for improvement, but as secret weapons go, nothing too explosive. Cain, who grew up in the segregated South, sells himself as the common sense Republican in the presidential race. Never elected to public office, he has no legislative record to pick apart. He believes it is God's will that he run for president. His inexperience, he says, is a plus.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 10, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Herman Cain: An article in the July 8 Section A about Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain referred to Marshalltown, Iowa, as Marshallville.
"Reporters will sometimes ask, 'Well don't you think the voters are gonna hold it against you that you've never held public office?' " Cain said. "And I say, 'Well, no. Most of the people in Washington, D.C., have held public office. How's that working out for you?' "
Cain's easy manner on the podium, booming laugh and slightly goofy sense of humor stand out in a Republican field dominated by bland former governors (with the exception of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, colorful in her own right). Cain, who also sports a thin moustache, calls himself "the Hermanator" and "head coach" of "Hermanator's Intelligent Thinkers Movement." When he gets irritable, he narrates the moment: "If you're trying to make me lose my cool," he told a journalist at a gathering of conservative bloggers, "you're almost succeeding."
But he has potentially serious drawbacks: He often says he is still wrestling with his policy positions, has raised little money and shoots from the lip about issues like whether he would appoint Muslims to his administration or the federal bench. ("No, I will not," he said firmly when asked by a reporter for the liberal website ThinkProgress. When pressed on that point during a debate June 13, he backtracked, trying to draw a distinction between "peaceful" and "militant" Muslims.)
Also, key staffers in Iowa and New Hampshire quit last week, citing disorganization at the top and his light schedule. "He was not willing to put the effort into Iowa that he needed to win," said Tina Goff, his former Iowa state director. Cain also lost Charlie Gruschow, a founder of the Des Moines Tea Party who was his liaison to the evangelical community, a crucial constituency of the Iowa GOP.
"We're a fledgling young organization," Cain spokeswoman Ellen Carmichael said. "All campaigns go through this." On Tuesday, she announced five new hires in Iowa.
Still, Cain is connecting with conservative voters in a way that few expected when he began visiting Iowa and other early voting states. He is a social conservative and acknowledges that his positions are much like his opponents', though he has embraced the "fair tax," a simple, flat rate that would replace the income tax, and supports a return to the gold standard.
In language that appeals to Republicans who fear for the future of the country under their "socialist" President Obama, he frames the American condition as a series of crises -- economic, immigration, energy, entitlements.
"We have to touch Medicare, we have to touch Social Security, we have to touch Medicaid," he told an audience in Council Bluffs in March. "If you're already on Social Security, you won't be affected. They don't tell you that when they show you the scare tactics of someone pushing grandma off the bridge in a wheelchair."
Cain has been to Iowa 21 times. In a poll released June 24, the Gallup organization found that although Cain is less well known than most other Republican candidates, he generates more enthusiasm among voters than any of his competitors.
Yet, Iowa political observer Craig Robinson, who founded the Iowa Republican website, says he thinks Cain is in trouble.
"While he enjoys this skyrocket in the polls, you have to have a ground game," Robinson said. "People are looking for substance and he never provides it."
A radio talk show host and preacher, Cain has an appealing rags-to-riches story, though he likes to downplay the riches part. "I am not a bajillionaire," he said. "Not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. We didn't even have a spoon!"
No one laughed.
"That was a joke, y'all. Come on!" he said. Cain often tells a crowd when to clap or laugh.
In an interview, he said he would not describe himself as "wealthy," pegging his net worth at "probably a few million." (Other estimates put it about $18 million.)