Whatever questions come flying at Herman Cain at Tuesday’s night Republican debate in Las Vegas, there is one big one he has to answer: Are you serious?
It is a measure of Cain’s success that anyone would care to ask. For much of this year Cain seemed to be enjoying his role as political novelty act — an entertaining sideshow at debates, and even an occasional presence on the early-state campaign trail — when he wasn’t otherwise occupied with speeches, television appearances and book-tour publicity.
But now that Cain, buoyed by bulging poll numbers, is demanding to be viewed as a credible contender for the GOP nomination, Cain’s greatest peril is that primary rivals, journalists and the political world broadly will grant that wish.
Very little in recent days suggests Cain is adequately prepared for the coming test on his understanding of foreign policy, on his advisers and the origin of his most provocative ideas and, not to put too fine a point on it, on whether he has a factual command of issues equal to what would be expected of the typical congressional candidate.
NBC News anchor David Gregory seemed perplexed, then astonished, on “Meet the Press” Sunday when Cain responded quizzically to questions about whether he is a foreign policy neoconservative before stating that he is “not familiar with the neoconservative movement” — never mind a decade of roiling debate among Republicans about the neocon agenda to remake the world.
Cain said he subscribes to the foreign policy wisdom of Henry Kissinger and John Bolton — never mind, again, that these two men have diametrically opposed views of the world.
As for Cain’s suggestion at a campaign rally Saturday in Tennessee that he would fight illegal immigration by building an electric fence along the Mexican border, he told Gregory that the remark was “a joke.”
Evidently aware that Cain’s presidential bid is entering a new phase — a test which could either make him the main alternative to Romney or return him to novelty status — campaign manager Mark Block told POLITICO his operation is rapidly adding policy advisers.
He said the recruitment and hiring of new advisers is being handled by Rich Lowrie, the Ohio accountant who is Cain’s chief economic adviser. “I’m not trying to dance around the question,” Block said. “I quite frankly don’t know who they are.”
Lowrie said he can’t reveal the identities of the advisers because he’s unsure of the campaign’s policy on doing so.
“I don’t know what the policy is for releasing their names,” he said. “There are some who said, ‘We like you guys; we’ll help you as much as we can, but don’t use my name.’ … There are people who want to stay neutral, and if they said, ‘Don’t use my name,’ we’re going to respect that. I don’t think that’s unusual.”
Block said the new policy depth is part of an evolution that the campaign always planned for as it gained momentum. The Cain team has gone “from run to warp speed in the last three weeks” and is “expanding exponentially in every field” — adding to both its intellectual and political muscle.
“This rapid ramp-up has always been part of our strategy,” he said. “We just didn’t know when we were going to be able to make it happen.”
Does anyone care if Cain sounds well versed on matters other than his 9-9-9 tax plan?
It could be that many of his most ardent supporters do not, regarding with suspicion any efforts by political journalists or GOP establishment figures in Washington to impose their version of an SAT exam on a figure whose popularity comes in large measure from the fact that he is an outsider to the political world. If anything, Cain’s unwillingness to study for the test could add to his appeal.
“He just has to connect with the American people, which he’s doing,” Lowrie said. “That’s really what he’s doing. It’s a nontraditional campaign with a nontraditional candidate. We’re connecting with the grass roots. and he’s not really out to impress the media.”
The flailing candidacies of Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have already proved Cain is swimming in dangerous currents. By the time Sarah Palin chose not to run for president, some polls showed that — despite her enduring populist appeal with conservatives — a majority of Republicans did not think she was qualified to be president.
Bachmann and Perry both rode waves of early enthusiasm that crashed in later polls, in part because they were not seen as having sufficient grasp of the issues or policy depth. Block said Monday that Cain is familiar with neoconservatism but declined to say what Cain meant when he said otherwise on “Meet the Press.” Block offered to have Cain himself call to explain his thinking, though such a call never came.
Team Cain firmly believes that Cain should change nothing from the strategy that has led him to the top of the polls, even as other competitors for the GOP nomination prepare to attack him en masse for the first time. Rick Santorum began the aggression this weekend in Iowa, charging that Cain is an insufficient defender of traditional marriage.
“We’re just making sure that Herman stays Herman,” Lowrie said. “He’s been the same guy all along, and we want him to be the guy who is out connecting with the people. We don’t want him to change. If he’s himself, that’s to our advantage.”
The test Cain is facing is not about gray matter. Cain is a quick-witted, commanding presence on the debate stage, and he never faced doubts about his intelligence while serving as CEO of Godfather’s Pizza or the head of the national restaurant industry’s trade association.
But successfully running the policy gauntlet at a presidential level is less an aptitude test than an organizational feat. Most candidates who become nominees have an infrastructure of paid and outside advisers, who can help a candidate bluster his or her way through, say, a question that touches on the United States’ “three no’s” in the Taiwan Strait — a subject that, as president, could spark an international incident if someone screwed up the answer.
But Cain, at least until very recently, has had only the slightest whiff of an infrastructure. His New Hampshire director, Charlie Spano, has never before been paid to work in a campaign. Spano, a retired teacher who was the assistant manager for the local U.S. Census office in his hometown of Scranton, Pa., volunteered for John McCain in 2008 and Pat Toomey in 2010. In June, he was appointed an alternate to his local zoning board, according to the Scranton Times-Tribune.
Spano said Cain’s New Hampshire operation is “exercising a vigorous grass-roots effort. We’re building an organization with individuals both prominent and committed who are getting on the Cain train. There are several more New Hampshire state representatives who will be coming out and endorsing Mr. Cain soon.”
Spano said there is one other paid Cain New Hampshire staffer. Asked who it is, he replied: “I’m not at liberty to say right now.”
And while there is significant enthusiasm for Cain in Iowa, that has yet to translate to a substantial campaign infrastructure in the state, said Jeff Jorgensen, the Pottawatamie County GOP chairman and Cain’s highest-profile endorser in the state.
“There has been attempts earlier when he was out here in Iowa to solicit volunteers, to get people to sign up on his volunteer list,” Jorgensen said. “He hasn’t been in Iowa for quite a while, so that effort has kinda died down.”
Jorgensen said he’s tried to put Cain in touch with Iowans who can serve as policy experts, but his efforts have fallen on deaf ears.
“Early in the campaign, when Herman was through this part of the woods, we suggested getting him on an advisory council,” Jorgensen said, “and we never got any feedback on that.”