Businessman Herman Cain, the upstart newcomer in the 2012 Republican primary field, has a new title: serious candidate for president. Once viewed as an interesting if provocative also-ran, Cain has elbowed his way to front-of-the-pack status with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the result of several strong debate appearances, a commanding victory in the Florida GOP straw poll last month, and a stubborn reluctance by conservative voters to accept Romney.
The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows the former Godfather's Pizza executive tied with Perry in second place, with 17 percent of the vote, one of several recent surveys catapulting Cain to the top tier.
But even as he enjoys the fickle embrace of the party's social conservatives, doubts are being raised about the straight-talking businessman's legitimacy, and even his motives.
Instead of capitalizing on his newfound momentum by hitting the campaign trail hard, Cain this week opted to spend most of his time promoting his book, This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House, which just arrived in retail stores this week. Rather than visit diners in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he's signing books at Barnes & Noble outlets in Texas and Washington D.C., although his tour does also include several stops in South Carolina and Florida, two key primary states.
Steve Deace, an Iowa-based talk show host, posed the question on the minds of many people aligned with the Republican Party: "Is that guy running for president or just lining up a book tour?" Deace noted that unlike most of the other candidates, Cain does not have an organized presence in Iowa, the first caucus state.
Cain knows that the doubts about his legitimacy are out there, and he is quick to note that his moves are all part of a strategy for winning the nomination. The book tour was a way of building all-important name identification, he said.
"I have one of the lowest name IDs in this campaign," Cain said. "And so this book tour not only is going to help promote books, but [it will] get my name ID up. So when people criticize me for being off the campaign trail, that criticism doesn't hold water. I've got to get my name ID up, and this is one of the ways to do it."
Cain campaign officials insist that not focusing all of the candidate's energies in the early voting states is in fact a bold tactical maneuver, similar to President Obama's 50-state strategy in 2008. Campaign manager Mark Block said he's taking some cues from Obama political strategist David Plouffe's book, Audacity to Win. In an interview with political reporter Chuck Todd on the MSNBC network Wednesday, Block said, "Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina are important, but we're not betting the ranch" on three states.
"We will be in Iowa and we will be in New Hampshire, but we are not running a one-, two- or three-state strategy," he said. "It's the delegates that win this nomination."
Yet Romney is never asked whether he's serious about his White House bid, while one of Todd's questions for Block was telling. He asked him to answer the multiple-choice question of whether Cain was running to be president, to get a political message across, or to become a political celebrity. Block responded that Cain "fully intends to be president of the United States."
But, as Block also said, the campaign has just 30 staff members spread across five states, fewer perhaps than one of Cain's former pizzerias. The candidate this week was scheduled for six book signings and just three traditional campaign events.
An e-mail that went out to Cain supporters the day before his upset victory in the Florida straw poll wasn't about one of Cain's policy positions but instead offered them a chance to buy a collector's edition box set of the book, complete with a red case and gold trim. "Consider giving a loved one a copy of This is Herman Cain," it said. "You wouldn't be giving them just a book. You'd give them a gift to open again and again."
Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon noted that going whole hog for the Republican nomination and climbing the bestseller list aren't mutually exclusive. (Cain's book ranked 10th on Amazon.com's bestsellers list this week.) "There's a natural synergy between the book tour and the campaign, though they are separate events," Gordon said, adding that no campaign funds are being spent on book promotion.
One GOP strategist said he didn't think Cain's book tour was bad strategy - business strategy, at least. Cain knows he isn't going to win the nomination, despite his recent rise in the polls, said Rich Galen, a Republican consultant and former aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is also vying for the nomination.
"It's very smart to leverage his political surge to sell more books," Galen said. "He's a smart businessman."
Additional reporting by Lindsey Boerma