Republican presidential primary candidate Herman Cain says front-runner Mitt Romney cannot win the party's White House nomination next year because of his religion.
"Romney would be a good choice, but I don't believe he can win," Mr. Cain told editors and reporters of The Washington Times.
Mr. Cain on Monday became the first of Mr. Romney's nine declared and potential nomination rivals to say publicly and explicitly something long whispered: namely, that the former Massachusetts governor's Mormonism is an obstacle too big to overcome in the most solidly Republican region in the country. The South has a high concentration of evangelical Protestants, many of whom doubt the legitimacy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I know the South, and you have to win the South. Mitt Romney did not win it when he ran against John McCain" in the 2008 primaries, said Mr. Cain. "The reason he will have a difficult time winning the South this time is because when he ran the first time, he did not do a good job of communicating his religion. It doesn't bother me, but I know it is an issue with a lot of Southerners."
Mr. Cain, a retired corporate executive who made a career out of rescuing dying companies, including the faltering Godfather's pizza chain, argued that a Republican candidate needs to win Southern states.
"If you don't win South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, you can't win the nomination. And then you can't win the presidency," he said.
However, Mr. Romney is polling well in the South, according to the latest round of surveys.
A just-released American Research Group poll in South Carolina, one of the first four states on the official primary calendar, has Mr. Romney leading, with support from 25 percent of the sample of 600 likely Republican primary voters.
Mr. Cain is fourth in the poll at 10 percent, behind Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who has 13 percent. Mr. Cain and Mrs. Bachmann turn out relatively large numbers of tea party activists for their get-acquainted events. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin placed second with 16 percent, even though the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee has remained mum about whether she will run.
In 2008, Mr. Cain supported Mr. Romney, himself a hugely successful businessman with a "turn-it-around" reputation. Mr. Romney took over management of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics when it looked as if it would run out of money before it even got started.
"I like Mitt. I supported him in the last presidential election," said Mr. Cain, who softened his often booming baritone voice almost to a whisper. "I don't think he is going to be any stronger this time around against Barack Obama, even though Obama has a terrible record."
The South is heavily populated with evangelicals, fundamentalists and other traditionalist-leaning Christians who widely consider Mr. Romney's church not to be a Christian sect. They claim it either denies or unrecognizably redefines such Christian doctrines as the Trinity, original sin, the atonement, the continuity of the church and the canon of Scripture. Denouncing Mormonism is a staple of some Christian TV and radio programs and networks.
Mr. Cain, who has been polling in the high single digits among Republican voters in national polls, raised $2.6 million in the April-to-June reporting period, compared with $18 million raised by Mr. Romney.
But Mr. Cain said comparing the second-quarter sums isn't important because he will raise enough, along with his "common-sense" appeal to rank-and-file voters, to win in the end, even if his fundraising is below the top two in the field.
The Georgian also said he is happy to get 6 percent to 10 percent in national polls at this point, given that a few months ago he wasn't even on any polls because his candidacy wasn't taken seriously.
He said he has been winning straw polls among tea party and other conservative activists, more even than Mrs. Bachmann, his principal rival among declared candidates for tea party support, including in The Washington Times/Conservative Leadership Conference poll in Nevada on July 9.
"She said she doesn't have an exclusive franchise on their love," he said. "I think they love both of us equally. Some of them haven't decided which one they are going to cast their vote for, but they love us both equally."
Mr. Cain mentioned a Lincoln Day dinner in the Deep South, where he was greeted with an outpouring of enthusiasm from the 350 people in attendance, about 60 of whom were black.
"I was surprised there are that many black conservatives in Birmingham, Alabama," Mr. Cain said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.
He also touted his oft-praised manner as part of the reason he would be the ideal candidate to confront Mr. Obama, reputed to be an eloquent speaker, but whom Mr. Cain said only once persuaded the public of anything — to go along with his health care bill.
The difference is, he said, "I have charisma with substance."
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