Of the two businessmen likely to be in the field for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, long-shot Herman Cain, savior of the Godfather’s Pizza chain, makes the case that he is far more electable than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive front-runner in the race.
Mr. Cain, whose bid has generated a surprising buzz in conservative circles, said in an interview that he admires Mr. Romney’s business acumen and supported the former governor’s failed 2008 bid, but Mr. Cain argued that he possessed a greater ability to connect with voters and make things happen.
“Romney is a successful businessman who made a whole lot of money, and my hat’s off to him. I like people to make money,” said Mr. Cain, whose varied resume includes a stint as chairman of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, a widely praised turnaround job at the Pillsbury-owned Godfather’s chain, a term as head of the National Restaurant Association and host of a radio talk show in Atlanta.
“Mitt and I know how to solve problems,” Mr. Cain said. “But I can connect with people better than most, which means that as president, I will have the ability to get the general public interested and mobilized to put pressure on Congress to get things done.”
“Some say that’s Romney’s weakness,” he added.
Mr. Cain, 65, is the only Republican so far to have formed a 2012 exploratory committee, and has been zipping across the country raising money and shaking hands in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. In a party eager to build its minority voting base, he likely will be the only black candidate in the race as well.
Like Mr. Romney, who added to his business success by turning around a foundering management consultancy firm in the early 1990s, Mr. Cain rose to corporate prominence with his turnaround work in the fast-food industry. At Pillsbury, he engineered a sharp rebound of a struggling regional division of Pillsbury’s Burger King chain, and then was moved to the company’s battered Godfather’s subsidiary in 1986.
Within 14 months, the new CEO restored the chain to profitability and organized a management buyout of the chain soon after that.
Despite his low profile and name recognition, Mr. Cain said facing off against experienced, successful politicians in his party is not as foolhardy at it might appear. He said that his proven talent for connecting with people gives him an edge over better-known GOP pros.
“Remember when George W. Bush tried to push personal retirement accounts for Social Security?” Mr. Cain said. “Bush couldn’t get the public excited.”
Mr. Cain’s father was a janitor and his mother a domestic, but his first job out of college was as a mathematician working on ballistics for the Navy Department. “And, no, I was not an affirmative-action hire — when I got there, they had many black professionals working there.”
His work in the corporate world and as head of the National Restaurant Association in the mid-1990s gave him his first prominence. He first gained notice beyond the business world with a public challenge to President Clinton’s proposed health care overhaul package as the battle over the legislation raged on Capitol Hill.
The tape of Mr. Cain opposing health care reform to Mr. Clinton’s face has become legendary in conservative GOP circles, and could stand him in good stead with Republicans who are trying to repeal and replace another Democratic president’s overhaul of the health care system.
“On behalf of all of those business owners that are in a situation similar to mine,” Mr. Cain asked Mr. Clinton at the time, “my question is, quite simply: If I’m forced to do this, what will I tell those people whose jobs I will have to eliminate?”
Mr. Cain said that though his 2012 bid has been attracting a good bit of attention, he’s being mischaracterized. “I’m not a tea party movement leader,” he said. “I’m not formally affiliated with people heading up tea party organizations,” though he said he has addressed tea party gatherings.
Mr. Cain also insisted that he’s not running for the joy of hearing a band strike up “Hail to the Chief” when he walks into a room.
“It’s not about wanting to run so much as feeling compelled to run,” he said. “This country is on the wrong track, and I have some of the skill sets and qualities to lead us back on the right track.”
As to how private-sector success qualifies someone to be president of the United States, Mr. Cain said the corporate divisions he ran faced problems as complex and severe as those facing the U.S. government. He said he can offer a long, documented record of success solving problems that other high-powered executives failed to solve.
But business acumen has not always translated directly into political success, especially in presidential politics, and Mr. Cain’s only previous bid for elective office fell short when he lost to Rep. Johnny Isakson in the 2004 Republican Senate primary in Georgia.
His response: So what?
“I had never made a pizza or even eaten a Godfather’s pizza before taking over the company,” he said. “I had never been to Omaha, Neb., before, let alone to Godfather’s headquarters there.”
He said that putting foreign and domestic policy back on the right track is no different from rescuing a national pizza chain. Executive success doesn’t require knowing dough from toppings or the difference between Shiites and Sunnis or the intricacies of retirement-benefit rules in order to craft and implement successful policies for a large, complex organization.
He achieved one of his successes after his appointment as a Pillsbury vice president charged with salvaging a woefully behind-schedule, over-budget consolidation of nearly 2,000 employees scattered in offices in Minneapolis.
“After I took over, we completed it ahead of schedule and below budget,” he said. One key to his success was his discovery that a lawyer was micromanaging the project, slowing the process and costing the company time and money.
“I went to the guy who owned the space we were renting for the consolidation and got a handshake agreement to move the project along — and if we found something missing afterward, he would fix it,” Mr. Cain said.
He said that, if called upon, he can do the same for Americans.