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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 03/ 1/2011

The case for Herman Cain

By Aaron Blake

Pizza magnate Herman Cain is the only announced candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential field. Can he win? Photo by Reuters

It looks like we will finally have a major contender in the presidential field in the coming days, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich creeps ever closer to forming an exploratory committee.

But while Gingrich and other soon-to-be entrants (Tim Pawlenty, anyone?) will effectively launch the presidential race once they formally announce their intentions to run, one man has been in the race for quite a while now.

And he's starting to get noticed.

Conservative talk radio host and former Godfather's Pizza executive Herman Cain won the straw poll at the first-ever Tea Party Patriots gathering in Phoenix this weekend -- a sign that his fledgling campaign may actually pack some punch in a key community heading into the 2012 vote.

Cain has also been getting rave reviews from activists for his powerful and impassioned speeches at events like the Conservative Political Action Conference this month and, last year, at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

Now that the buzz is starting to percolate -- and with no major presidential candidates yet in the field -- we here at The Fix thought it timely to take a look at the top "mid-major" candidate in the field.

So, is Herman Cain the Butler Bulldogs of the 2012 presidential race? Today, we tackle why Cain could be a force in the 2012 GOP presidential field. Tomorrow, we take a look at why he won't be.

Oratory: This is the one major thing that Cain has going for him that could -- and we emphasize could -- help him surprise some people. Without the rousing speeches he's delivered at big Republican gatherings -- often punctuated by abruptly leaving the stage for effect (gotta love it!) -- it's unlikely he would have won this weekend's straw poll or been a blip on anyone's radar screen. Cain has a gift, honed through years of hosting an Atlanta-based radio talk show, that cannot be underestimated. And, in fact, Cain has already won a presidential debate, of sorts. During the health care debate in the 1990s, the then-Godfathers executive took on President Clinton at a televised town hall -- a performance that has been credited by some for the downfall of that effort.

If Cain is to make it big -- or even medium-sized -- in the 2012 presidential race, it will be mostly a result of debate performances and speeches. Cain has been delivering many speeches to local conservative and tea party groups in recent months -- an effort that he argued doesn't often make a big splash in the national media but will ultimately pay dividends. "It doesn't show up on the network nightly news, and I didn't expect it to," Cain told The Fix. "But we have a huge grassroots base that we have built in a number a places."

Biography: Born to working class black parents in Georgia, Cain is a modern American success story, rising to chairman and CEO of Godfather's, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and a successful talk radio host. He is also a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in 2006 and given little chance to live. (He has suggested he would have died under President Obama's health care bill). This background gives him a platform to talk about that health care bill and race in a way nobody else likely to run can.

The Obama effect: The question in 2008 was, can a black man win in Iowa? Now we know the answer. But it's not just about race. On the other side of the aisle, it's not hard to see Cain catching the imagination of conservative activists in Iowa and, later on, in South Carolina. With a Republican field that some have labeled uninspiring, there could be an opening for a different kind of candidate. One Republican strategist noted there is a "strain in the electorate that doesn't place as high a premium on electability. They want someone who can send a message to the establishment." Cain could be their man.

The Huckabee effect: Another thing Iowa's 2008 caucuses proved is that an under-funded but charismatic politician can do well. If former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin don't enter the race, there will be something of a void in the field that Cain may be able to fill. Potential candidates like Pawlenty and Rick Santorum are making a play for the tea party crowd, but both of them have establishment ties, whereas Cain will be able to do and say what he wants to please the tea party, having never held elected office before. The tea party likes a candidate who doesn't hold back and who comes from a non-political background. "It's turning out to be a plus for me not to be a politician," Cain said. "Real folks don't give a flip about having previous political experience."

The definition of victory: For someone like Cain, you've got to ask: what's the endgame here? Cain insists he's doing this to win, but even by running and losing, he could be doing himself a big favor. After finishing in second place in a 2004 GOP Senate primary in Georgia, Cain secured his talk radio gig. Currently on hiatus from WSB-AM in Atlanta, it's not far-fetched to think Cain gets a bigger platform if he can run a credible campaign for the presidency. After all, look what it did for Huckabee. And if nothing else, Cain could turn himself into a tea party kingmaker. "He will be a crowd-pleaser everywhere he goes and could be a desirable endorsement before the primary contest is over," said a Republican adviser to another prospective candidate.

By Aaron Blake  | March 1, 2011; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Case For/Case Against  
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Next: Bobby Jindal offers GOP candidates advice on 2012

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