A Long Shot's Steady Climb

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David Goldman / AP

During the past year, Herman Cain has trekked to Iowa 19 times, pitching himself to local power brokers and honing his withering critique of Barack Obama, the Democrats and all things liberal. The work is paying off. In March the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza won a straw poll of social conservatives in Des Moines, lapping a field dotted with populist firebrands like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. "At the moment, I think he's one of the front runners" in the crucial caucus state, says Iowa Tea Party leader Ryan Rhodes.

Iowa isn't the only place where Cain, 65, is catching on. He captured a Tea Party Patriots straw poll in Phoenix and was widely considered the winner of the GOP's opening debate in South Carolina last month. His star has climbed as better-known social conservatives like Mike Huckabee have opted to sit out the 2012 race. Cain's grass-roots support is partly the product of his genuine Horatio Alger story. Raised poor in Atlanta, he was the first in his family to attend college, and he put himself through graduate school by working as a Navy mathematician. He earned a reputation as a corporate turnaround artist, and in 1994, as the head of the National Restaurant Association, he sparred with President Bill Clinton over health care reform at a televised town hall. That exchange helped scuttle the Clinton proposal and propelled Cain to fame among conservatives. A self-help author and radio host who calls himself the Herminator, Cain takes uncompromising stands, and his stemwinding oratory has made Tea Partyers swoon.

But other conservatives are skeptical that Cain or his message can survive the rigors of a long campaign, even in hospitable Iowa. Cain has never held elected office; he was routed in his only race, a Georgia Senate primary in 2004. He has declined to articulate a foreign policy--to do so without access to classified documents, he says, would be disingenuous--and flubbed a series of questions about international affairs. "The objective of the liberals is to destroy America," he said, a comment that typifies his appetite for nuance. In March he said he wouldn't be comfortable hiring Muslims because of the threat posed by Shari'a law. (He later said he was referring only to "jihadists.") Cain is making his charge. Can his own party get comfortable hiring him?