WASHINGTON — Long-shot Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain calls his surprise victory in a Florida straw poll over the weekend a victory of message over media, and he may well be right.
The Atlanta business executive and two-time campaign loser has long been overshadowed by news media attention to rivals such as Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. He doesn't have their campaign money. He doesn't have their resumes in politics — he lost the only two times he ran for office before. And he doesn't get asked many questions in media-sponsored debates.
But he appeals to many rank-and-file Republicans with a deep voice and direct message that's based on his record as a successful businessman, a can-do delivery that doesn't knock other Republicans and a proposal for a flat tax that touches deep in the Republican DNA of loathing for the Internal Revenue Service.
These assets helped him surge past his more prominent rivals in the Florida poll Saturday, winning 37 percent of the vote, more than Perry's 15 percent and Romney's 14 percent combined.
"People are listening to the message and not just, with all due respect, to the media," Cain said on NBC, finding himself suddenly in demand for TV appearances.
"You have to be an effective communicator," he added on CNN. "If I were not an effective communicator, that would be a big weakness, but you also have to have some substance. People are resonating with my ideas."
Cain, 65, a former executive who helped turn around a division of Burger King and the Godfather's Pizza chain, got his first taste of the political spotlight in 1994 when he stood up to challenge President Bill Clinton on his health care proposal during a town hall meeting in Omaha, Neb.
He ran briefly for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, and tried for a Republican Senate nomination in Georgia in 2004, only to finish a distant second.
After a turn in radio and some time in the pulpit as a preacher, Cain is a polished speaker with a deep, resonant voice.
He is not, however, a polished politician.
He once lambasted Planned Parenthood, saying its founder originally wanted centers in black neighborhoods "so they could help kill black babies." Earlier this year, he said he wouldn't be comfortable appointing a Muslim to his Cabinet or the federal bench.
However impolitic he may be, it's his talk about running government like a business that strikes a chord, especially among conservatives tired of disappointments from professional politicians in both major parties.
"He is not a politician. He's a businessman with no-nonsense ideas," said Richard Webster, a teacher from Miami-Dade County, Fla. "People want to try something completely different."
Cain promises a Social Security rescue modeled after a largely privatized system in Chile. To cheers, he says he'd throw out the tax code and replace it with a 9-9-9 plan: a 9 percent flat income tax, a 9 percent national sales tax and a 9 percent corporate income tax. He offers no numbers on how much revenue his tax code would generate.
When he got to it in a speech to Florida conservatives Saturday, hundreds jumped in, chanting "9-9-9."
Cain also scores with his personal story, an up-by-the-bootstraps tale that culminates in his so-far successful fight against colon cancer.
"I've liked Herman Cain from the very beginning," said Pat Palaio, a caregiver from Perry, Fla., who attended the debate and straw poll in Florida. "But I don't think he can win. It's important to pick a candidate who can win."
While Cain is doing well onstage, he hasn't been doing as much on the ground to win in Iowa, the state that kicks off the nomination voting next winter.
"He has done a great job in the debates," said Craig Robinson, the editor of The Iowa Republican website and a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party.
Robinson said Cain was resonating with the simple and specific 9-9-9 plan, especially compared with Romney's 59-point economic plan and Perry's still-missing plan. He said Cain also did well by not attacking his Republican rivals, keeping his fire focused on President Barack Obama.
But if Cain wants to turn his moment of attention into a more durable campaign, Robinson said, he'll have to start drawing contrasts with other GOP candidates. And he'll have to start campaigning more in person.
"He hasn't been here since the (Iowa) straw poll six weeks ago," Robinson said. "I see a ton of potential in Herman Cain. But I don't see a willingness to do what it takes to win a state like Iowa."
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