Herman Cain is multitasking, and he may be about to lose his cool.
“You see, this is the part that I really have to show my patience,” Cain says as he autographs a well-wisher’s baseball, gets heckled by a disgruntled Republican voter and crosses a busy street in Concord, New Hampshire -- all while trying to explain to a gaggle of reporters how he can win a third of the black vote in the United States.
His wife reminded him: “‘Herman, remain cool’” during last week’s debate with his Republican rivals in Hanover, Cain said. He did that and more, grabbing the spotlight with his 9-9- 9 tax initiative and hitting back when competitors belittled the plan -- and him -- during the session.
Now Cain, 65, a former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive and radio host surging in Republican primary polls, is scrambling to transform his fledgling presidential bid -- heavy on branding, personality and catch-phrases but light on organization, discipline and policy details -- into a well- oiled, well-funded competitive campaign machine.
‘Lean and Mean’
That means rapidly expanding a politically inexperienced staff of 35 -- Cain calls his operation “lean and mean” -- into a much larger and more seasoned organization in important primary states, boosting fundraising and filling in the considerable blanks in his policy plans.
Above all, it means preventing himself from becoming the latest in a succession of fiscally and socially conservative candidates -- including Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann -- who have briefly challenged former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for the title of Republican frontrunner, only to lose momentum.
“I won’t fizzle,” Cain promises a voter at a Concord restaurant who asks if he’s in the race “for the long haul.”
Yet Cain knows he has a narrow and shrinking window of time to ensure his staying power, with key states jockeying to hold primaries as early as possible and New Hampshire now threatening to set its contest for early to mid-December.
And he has little to say, apart from an ice cream analogy that’s become a favorite in recent days, about how he can do so.
“Will I be the flavor of the week?” Cain quipped last week. “Well, the answer is an emphatic ‘No,’ because Haagen Dazs black walnut tastes good all the time.”
Jack Kimball, a Portsmouth businessman and former chairman of New Hampshire’s Republican Party who is backing Cain, said it’s a race against the clock to make sure voters get a taste.
“What we’re concerned with right now is the compression of the primary calendar,” Kimball said in an interview. “I absolutely feel that he can pull it off here,” Kimball said. “If we don’t come out of here first, we absolutely can come out of here nip-and-tuck second.”
Cain finished considerably worse than that in the race for cash, reporting over the weekend that he raised $2.6 million between July 1 and Sept. 30, compared to $17 million for Perry and $14.2 million for Romney over the same period.
And Cain, whose chief of staff Mark Block has never run a presidential campaign, faces other challenges as he seeks to ramp up his effort in Iowa, New Hampshire and other key states.
“It’s real tough,” said Corey Lewandowski, New Hampshire director of the Tea Party-aligned Americans for Prosperity. “Almost all of the political operatives that want to be working in New Hampshire are already working” for someone else, he said, though some could be freed as other candidates fade.
“His message resonates with the Tea Party very well,” Lewandowski said. “The people who are supporting Herman Cain are the type of people that show up and vote in the primary.”
For now at least, Cain is riding a wave -- the preferred candidate of 27 percent of Republican voters in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, compared with Romney’s 23 percent and Perry’s 16 percent. Texas Representative Ron Paul drew 11 percent in the survey conducted Oct. 6-10, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 8 percent, Bachmann 5 percent and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. 3 percent.
Cain is enjoying his moment, even as it has brought fresh scrutiny and criticism of his signature tax plan and more attention to campaign gaffes. Cain, who has trademarked the phrase “The Hermanator Experience” and spent much of the past several weeks on tour promoting his book “This is Herman Cain!,” is more marketing genius than policy heavyweight.
Critics in both parties have faulted Cain’s 9-9-9 plan to replace the current code with 9 percent business, individual and national sales taxes -- with Republicans warning it could lead to future tax increases and Democrats asserting it would disproportionately hit lower-income earners.
His vow to balance the federal budget in one year would necessitate spending cuts of more than 20 percent. And his plan to adopt a “Chilean model” in place of the Social Security retirement system for the elderly has raised yet more questions about how -- amid soaring deficits -- he would finance it.
Cain is still working out some details. Asked if his proposed tax deduction for businesses that buy U.S.-made goods would apply to a computer manufactured by an American company and fabricated overseas with Asian-made parts, he responded: “I have no idea, haven’t looked at it in that great a detail.”
Cain told a crowd at a Cookesville, Tennessee, Tea Party rally that he would build an electrified, barbed wire-topped border fence to kill would-be illegal immigrants -- a statement he dismissed as a joke yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The remark prompted an angry response from Democratic Representative Charles A. Gonzalez of Texas, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who said in a statement today that, “Whether or not he made his comments in jest, Mr. Cain’s words show a lack of understanding of the immigration issues our country is facing and a staggering lack of sensitivity.”
Last week, Cain courted late-lunch customers at the Ninety Nine Restaurant in Concord wearing shirt cuffs monogrammed with a “C” and carrying a black Stetson hat.
Debbie Mastromarino, 58, a pharmacy technician from Pittsfield who said she was “not too sure about the 9-9-9” tax plan, wanted to know if Cain was in the race to stay. “You can’t fizzle -- because they all fizzle,” she warned over a bowl of chili.
Cain had chosen the restaurant for its $9.99 entrée specials, in keeping with his own brand.
If the product lacks some discipline, its producer is a showman. Video of Cain, an accomplished gospel vocalist, singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” with pizza-related lyrics circulated on the Internet today. And at one point during his Tennessee bus tour, Cain interrupted a rally to belt out a few bars of “To Dream the Impossible Dream” from the 1965 musical “Man of La Mancha” based on the 17th Century classic, “Don Quixote.”
“This is my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless,” Cain sang, adding: “I just thought I’d do that.”
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