Herman Cain addresses the crowd in Bartlett, Tenn. (Karen Pulfer Focht / Associated…)
Reporting from Bartlett, Tenn. — Herman Cain, the Republican front-runner in at least one recent 2012 presidential poll, swatted away criticism of his tax plan Friday and accused critics of attacking him because he was suddenly at the head of the pack.
"Can y'all see that big bull's-eye on my back?" asked Cain, turning to show the crowd an imaginary target as he spoke in a park outside Memphis, his birthplace, at the first stop on a bus tour through Tennessee.
The state seldom draws candidates this early in a presidential campaign because its primary is not held until March. But Cain's hastily arranged visit underscored both his campaign's seat-of-the-pants nature and his disdain for election orthodoxy — while allowing him to embrace his Southern roots.
"As far as I'm concerned, all y'all's my relatives today," the former pizza chain executive told the boisterous crowd of more than 500, which included a smattering of his actual relatives.
"This is very exciting," said his first cousin Karla Cain, a 51-year-old Baptist minister and Democrat from Memphis. "I'm not really into politics, but he has made me take a second look at Republicans."
Cain has relished his new role as front-runner, and took satisfaction invoking the "pundits" and "so-called political media" who predicted the end of his campaign after his fifth-place finish in the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa in August. "Some said they should have put a fork in me two months ago," he said.
Later, at a rally in Jackson, Cain compared himself to the bumblebee — a creature, he said, that scientists have exhaustively analyzed because "it is not supposed to fly."
"You know why the bumblebee can fly?" he asked. "Because it didn't get the memo that he can't fly! And I didn't get the memo that I can't be president!"
Cain lags in fundraising and has a tiny organization of no more than three dozen employees, but he says those obstacles are beside the point.
"The voice of the people is more powerful than the voice of the media," Cain said at the park in Bartlett. "The message is more powerful than money."
Since he vaulted to the lead earlier this week in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Cain's economic plan, dubbed "9-9-9," has been under intense scrutiny. The plan would replace the current tax code with a simple 9% tax on corporate and personal income, and a 9% national sales tax. This would create 6 million jobs and grow the economy by 5%, Cain said.
Like many fans, Wil Horn, a retired military man from Jackson, said he liked the 9-9-9 plan, but, like many, was leery about what it could become.
"The problem with 9-9-9," Horn said, "is that it could turn into 20-20-20 in successive administrations."
Cain has little patience for doubters.
At both rallies Friday, he went after a fellow candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who attacked the 9-9-9 plan at their most recent debate.
"Sen. Santorum says that Herman's plan can't pass," Cain said. "There's the difference between a politician and a problem-solver. Politicians put together plans they think can pass. Businessmen put together plans they think can solve the problem.... That's what this is about."
Cain's appearance at the Mid-South Tea Party in Bartlett was the first of seven events scheduled over two days in Tennessee.
While GOP activists have carped that Cain should be spending time in the early states of New Hampshire and Iowa, Cain has said he is running a national strategy and that changes in the primary calendar have forced him to campaign in later-voting states.
"The whole process has been compacted," Cain said. "We don't want to leave anything on the table."
The only candidate in the race who has not held office — though he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and briefly for president in 2000 — Cain again offered the rationale for his candidacy: He is a businessman, not a politician.
And the crowds seemed to respond.
"When we have a president who has never even run a lemonade stand, I'll take a businessman," Horn said.
Cain, who became a talk-show host and motivational speaker after retiring from Godfather's Pizza in the 1990s, is a charismatic stump speaker.
As polished as he is, however, he has sometimes found himself in the midst of controversies stemming from off-the-cuff remarks.
In a brief back-and-forth with reporters, Cain was asked about his recent comment about African Americans, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, not thinking for themselves.
"I never said all black Americans are brainwashed; I said some of them are, and they are. But the good news is many black Americans are thinking for themselves," he said.
In Bartlett, Tyrone Seay, a 38-year-old African American auto dealer from Arlington, Tenn., said he was certain that Cain had already cost Obama support.
"I've been a Democrat all my life," Seay said. "But he pulled me away."