“The Cain Mutiny” by Michael Crowley

Time – October 24, 2011 issue

“Howdy America. I’se be Herman Cain at yo’ service!”

At this point in the republican presidential campaign, the official script calls for a head-to-head matchup between the two candidates with broad support among the party’s elite thinkers and fundraisers: Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. But sometimes the voters throw out the script. And so, at an Oct. 11 debate in New Hampshire, the star was neither of the two Establishment favorites. It was a former pizza mogul who’s never held elected office and who until recently was a punch line for political insiders.

And so now the joke is on the Establishment. Surging in the polls nationally and in key primary states, and lifting voters from their seats with his rousing, sermon-style oratory, Herman Cain is roiling the 2012 presidential race. In New Hampshire, the main topic of conversation wasn’t about Romney’s economic plan or Perry’s Texas record. It was Cain’s catchy–some say gimmicky–“9-9-9” tax-reform plan, which would replace the tax code with a 9% flat tax on business and personal income, plus a national sales tax. “Therein lies the difference between me, the nonpolitician, and all of the politicians,” Cain said. “They want to pass what they think they can get passed rather than what we need, which is a bold solution. 9-9-9 is bold, and the American people want a bold solution.”

Conservative activists seem to want boldness, but they aren’t finding it in either Romney or Perry. So they have turned to the latest candidate offering the promise of a dramatic break from politics as usual. “He’s not a politician,” says Wayne Sommers of Greenwood, Del., after seeing Cain electrify a crowd of conservatives at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington this month. “He’s real.”

Maybe too real to win. Cain, 65, lacks campaign funds, a seasoned campaign team and the support of key party leaders. Some of his aides have quit, saying he is not a serious candidate. He left the campaign this month for a book tour–some say his driving motivation is publicity–and confesses ignorance about Afghanistan and the names of foreign leaders. Other conservative stars, like Michele Bachmann, have ignited and burned out within weeks. Even so, Cain’s rise indicates that Republican voters are not ready to close ranks around the race’s so-called front runners, relative moderates in comparison to Cain’s in-your-face conservatism.

Cain’s rivals are hard pressed to compete, for instance, with the simplicity and superficial appeal of his 9-9-9 plan, even if its details remain highly controversial. Conservative economists applaud the idea, but many others say it dramatically favors the rich, could actually raise taxes on the poor and would require huge spending cuts. Cain also delights social conservatives with his firm views: he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, calls homosexuality a choice and says he would not be comfortable with a Muslim in his Cabinet. (He even delivers sermons at Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta.) Republican pollster David Winston says voters love Cain’s bombastic style and have “responded to the way he is offering ideas.”

Plus, in a campaign that can seem like reality television, the Hermanator, as he likes to call himself, simply puts on a great show. He is America’s unlikeliest new star, hitting The Tonight Show and The View, being mocked on Saturday Night Live and beaming from the cover of his new memoir, This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House. And how many other presidential contenders like to sport black hats and sunglasses or have released their own gospel album? “We have a severe deficiency of leadership,” Cain says. The question is whether he’s really the kind of leader Republicans are looking for–or just the latest vessel for their intense anti-Establishment frustration.

Unlikely Hero

When Cain visited TIME’s New York City offices for an interview in early October, he was certainly a man in action. He arrived with campaign staffers and a book publicist, fresh from a meeting with Donald Trump. (“We hit it off right away,” Cain said.) His schedule was packed: Cain paused his interview to dial in to Sean Hannity’s radio show, a conservative publication was waiting for its own interview, and his press aide had to turn down yet another request. Afterward, he was off to meet a group of wealthy Manhattan donors. And that cowboy hat he posed in for Time? We supplied one because black hats are a Cain signature. Cain liked it so much, he took it with him; an aide asked our photo editor to send a bill.

It’s an unpredictable place to find a man who grew up poor in the segregated South. Cain was born in Memphis and raised in Atlanta, where he lives today. His father was a driver for Coca-Cola’s top executive, as well as a janitor and barber, and his mother was a cleaning lady. A graduate of Atlanta’s Morehouse College who completed his master’s at Purdue University, Cain studied missile trajectories as a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy before joining the Pillsbury Co. There he turned around a group of some 400 struggling Burger Kings, and in 1986 he took over the company’s foundering Godfather’s Pizza chain. Godfather’s “lacked focus,” Cain says, so he condensed the menu and simplified its marketing. He went on to arrange a leveraged buyout of the company, stayed on as CEO and made millions on its turnaround before stepping down as chief executive in 1996. His story, Cain says, proves that anyone can succeed in America. Creating jobs, he adds, isn’t so different from delivering pepperoni pies. “This President does not understand a fundamental economic principle, which is that the business sector is the engine of economic growth.”

Not that Cain, who survived a severe 2006 bout with colon cancer, is a total newcomer to politics. Republicans first took notice of him in 1994, when Cain forcefully challenged Bill Clinton about the costs of his health care plan during a televised town-hall meeting. (The exchange is now a YouTube hit.) Former GOP Congressman Jack Kemp made him an adviser to the 1996 Dole-Kemp ticket, and Cain tested his own White House bid in 2000. He also mounted a losing U.S. Senate campaign in Georgia four years later. While living in Omaha in the 1990s–Godfather’s is based there–he chaired the Kansas City, Mo., arm of the Federal Reserve. And he spent nearly three years in the late ’90s running the Washington-based National Restaurant Association, in effect serving as the dining industry’s top lobbyist.

Cain strikes some people as an unlikely hero for a Tea Party movement the NAACP and some liberal activists have called racist. But that might work in Cain’s favor, since supporting him allows conservative activists to demonstrate a lack of prejudice. “The Republican Party is not rich, old, fat men who smoke cigars,” says Melonaie Gullick of Conway, Ark., who saw Cain speak in Kansas City on Oct. 1. “To all of those people who say that the Tea Party is a racist organization,” Cain says in one online video, “eat your words!”

In fact, the Tea Party touts multiple black heroes at the moment. In addition to Cain, there are the House freshmen Allen West of Florida and Tim Scott of South Carolina, both extremely combative partisans. Together they join more familiar names like Alan Keyes and Clarence Thomas in espousing a hard-line brand of conservatism rare among past generations of black politicians. “The black conservatives we are seeing today are kind of a new phenomenon” and are more ideological than their forebears, says Shelby Steele, who studies racial identity at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Cain writes that he was shaped by his father’s admonition not to feel like a victim or resent America because of racism. “I’m not mad at America,” he told Hannity. “I’m proud of this country.”

Although he claims he can win one-third of the black vote, Cain doesn’t dwell on race. But the topic can trip him up. After reports surfaced that Perry had leased a property with a racially offensive name, Cain said the Texan had been “plain insensitive.” Even that mild criticism annoyed conservatives like Rush Limbaugh, and Cain backpedaled. “I in no way believe that was a reflection of Governor Perry in terms of his attitude toward black people,” he says.

What’s in It for Him?

The big question behind the Cain hype is whether it’s just that. Is he after real votes–or just fame and fortune? (He’s had his own radio show for more than a decade and is a motivational speaker who can win five-figure sums on the lecture circuit.) Cain has mostly been off the campaign trail this month for his book tour. His top aides in Iowa and New Hampshire quit this summer, saying he wasn’t making a real effort. “I am a serious candidate,” Cain insists, noting that he is already wealthy. “I don’t do things for self-promotion.”

Still, Cain can seem ill prepared for the presidential stage. He says he won’t offer a plan for Afghanistan until experts brief him in the Oval Office. Asked this spring about Middle East peace, Cain seemed unfamiliar with the crucial concept of a right of return for Palestinian refugees. He has also confessed to having “little knowledge” of Islam and fretted that “many” Muslims “are not totally dedicated to this country.” And being a relative political novice can make for dangerously blunt statements. Asked on Oct. 5 about anti–Wall Street protesters, for instance, Cain declared, “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”

While pundits may criticize Cain for such talk, his fan base only seems to grow. His friend and former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele calls Cain’s surge a testament to the party’s fierce anti-Establishment mood. “He has managed to outwit the smart intelligentsia of the GOP and position himself with the base, the people actually doing the voting,” Steele says. If nothing else, that’s a loud wake-up call for the GOP’s supposed front runners

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