By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Herman Cain tout their real-world business experience as the cure for an ailing U.S. economy, but political history suggests it is rarely a deciding factor in elections.
The two men who lead the pack in the shifting Republican race to choose a challenger to President Barack Obama in 2012 are hoping the lingering economic downturn will make this the year voters put a corporate manager in the White House.
Herbert Hoover in 1928 was the last presidential winner to spend most of his career in business, and campaign-trail lore is littered with the high-profile flameouts of corporate executives who could not make the transition to politics.
With polls showing public confidence in big business at 40-year lows, a gold-plated business resume could even work against a candidate with certain voters.
"Being a business executive alone is not going to close the deal with voters," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "They want people who can solve the big problems, and in some quarters a business person will be seen as someone who has brought on some of those problems."
Romney and Cain are betting their presidential hopes that the pervasive public gloom about the U.S. economy creates a yearning in 2012 for a former business manager in the White House.
Romney, who lost a presidential bid in 2008 but returned as a stronger candidate this time around, tells campaign crowds his experience as head of a private equity firm is a bigger part of his identity than his term as Massachusetts governor.
"I have the kinds of skills that America needs right now to get our economy going again," he told voters in Iowa last week during a campaign swing through the western part of the state.
Romney highlights his background as founder of Bain Capital, an equity firm that bought up distressed companies and tried to rebuild them, although critics point out that he sometimes cut jobs in the process.
Many of Romney's campaign stops this year feature business roundtables, where he meets with local corporate leaders to empathize with their problems and stress his experience in dealing with them.
'I SOLVE PROBLEMS'
Cain, who lost a Georgia Senate primary in his previous bid at political office, led a turnaround of the Godfather's Pizza chain and reminds voters at every opportunity that he can run a boardroom and throw on an apron and make a pizza.
"I solve problems for a living," Cain said in a recent debate.
Polls cast doubt on the political value of their business pasts, however. A Pew Research Center poll earlier this year showed voters ranked corporate experience on a par with serving as governor among the attributes that would make them more likely to vote for a candidate.
A 2007 Gallup Poll on the qualities voters sought in a president found both parties wanted honesty, strong leadership, management skills and moral integrity, and put less emphasis on the particulars of military, business or political experience.
A Gallup Poll of confidence in institutions put big business near the bottom -- tied with health maintenance organizations and ahead of only the rock-bottom scores of the U.S. Congress.
Given the anti-establishment, anti-government mood of the electorate, Cain has benefited as much from being a total Washington outsider as from his successful career in business.
"I don't think business experience is a big plus for them, although it's not a significant negative either," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
"We know that confidence in banks, Wall Street, financial institutions -- the sort of things Romney ran -- is at a 40-year low," she said. "Experience in that is not one of the first things voters think of when they talk about what they want in a president."
Switching from running the get-it-done environment of a corporation to the collaborative effort of a political campaign or office can be difficult. Recent history has seen several successful business executives fall flat at politics.
Publisher Steve Forbes failed in two White House bids, as did wealthy Texan Ross Perot, who actually led polls at one point during his third-party White House campaign in 1992. He ended up at 19 percent -- the best third-party showing since Teddy Roosevelt won more than 27 percent of the vote in 1912.
Michael Bloomberg successfully jumped from the business world to the New York mayor's office on his first try, but the 2010 elections saw successful executives like Carly Fiorina in California and Linda McMahon in Connecticut lose Senate campaigns.
"Being successful in business is very different from being successful in politics. Business is a science, politics is an art," Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said.
"Business executives are used to getting their way, making decisions and having people jump. Politics doesn't work that way," he said.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)