Cain's Iowa volunteers helm do-it-yourself campaign

Republican presidential hopeful, businessman Herman Cain, campaigns outside of Kinnick stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, before Iowa's NCAA college football game against Indiana, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011. About a half-dozen Republican candidates and about 1,000 evangelical activists plan to attend Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition in Des Moines Saturday night as the Republican presidential campaign continues its search for a more conservative alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
AP Photo/Brian Ray
Herman Cain campaigns outside of Kinnick stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, before Iowa's NCAA college football game against Indiana, Oct. 22, 2011.
AP Photo/Brian Ray

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

Last Thursday, disabled Army combat veteran Mike Fitzgerald walked into Herman Cain's Iowa campaign headquarters in Urbandale and told the first person who greeted him to put him to work.

A transplant from New Orleans who fled to Iowa after Hurricane Katrina struck, Fitzgerald has never before been involved in a campaign. But just an hour after he started phone-banking for Cain, he was already projecting the poise of an old pro.

"I'm supposed to read a script on the screen, but I don't do that," Fitzgerald said, explaining that he prefers to speak off-the-cuff about why he believes Cain is the right man for the White House.

Fitzgerald, 40, signed up to volunteer two hours a day every Monday through Friday, and he'll have plenty of company in Cain's now cramped campaign headquarters, which was all but empty just a couple of months ago.

The Gulf War veteran said Thursday there were more than 20 volunteers packed into the small edifice set beside a strip mall, as handymen installed new phones to keep up with the increased volume of call-making.

Though the polls show Cain is a Republican front-runner not just nationally but in the nation's first voting state of Iowa, there are more than a few doubts about whether the charismatic former CEO of Godfather's Pizza has the campaign infrastructure in place to make a serious run for the nomination.

(Politico reported Sunday that Cain was accused of inappropriate behavior by two women more than a decade ago while head of the National Restaurant Association. A Cain spokesman denied any sexual harassment took place, and the candidate himself told reporters that he would not comment on the allegations "until I see some facts or some concrete evidence.")

But Cain's campaign is attempting to rewrite the rules for how to wage a winning campaign by relying on a team of committed volunteers, rather than paid professionals, to do most of the grunt work, while the candidate himself leaves a light footprint in the early voting states.

"I've been in a lot of campaigns and I can tell you I've not been in a campaign that is so volunteer-driven as this one," said Steve Grubbs, a former Iowa GOP chairman and longtime presidential campaign veteran, who signed on to lead Cain's Iowa effort earlier this month. "The only job for the paid staffers is to use their time to leverage volunteers. So if one staffer mobilizes 50 volunteers a day, you get hundreds of volunteer hours per staffer. That's the model, and it only works if you have this group of deeply passionate people for the candidate and the campaign."

The collective presidential campaign experience held by Cain's four paid Iowa staffers -- all of whom came aboard in June -- is minimal at best.

State director Larry Tuel volunteered on John McCain's campaign in 2008 and worked with Cain's Iowa communications director Lisa Lockwood on Terry Branstad's gubernatorial race last year.

Zach Dalluge, who is nominally responsible for Cain's list management and field organization in the state, worked in the Iowa legislature and on state House campaigns, while phone-banking guru Steve Hensler has some Senate campaign experience.

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"Larry likes to say he's no more of a political operative than Mr. Cain is a politician," Lockwood said. "We don't have any kind of allegiance to 'Oh, this is the way it's always been done.' It's more just 'Get 'er done!' "

There is no apparent plan in the works to expand the Iowa payroll, although Lockwood said she overheard a conversation about "something referred to as a rapid response team" potentially descending on the state once Caucus Day gets nearer.

Lockwood said that the decision not to expand paid Iowa staff is a reflection of the candidate's prudent business sense and she insisted that Cain had the majority of Iowa covered by his dedicated volunteers, who are doing "staff-type work."

"People are so excited about his candidacy," she said. "I have people calling me just so hopped up. I'm like, 'Dude, have a decaffeinated coffee or something!' People are so jazzed about him. I just get earful after earful from random people."

That level of enthusiasm is evident in volunteers like Pat Smith, a retired nurse from Marshalltown who spent her first day on the Cain campaign -- Thursday -- making sign-up charts for the influx of volunteers.

Smith and her husband first saw Cain during a visit to Cedar Falls, and one of the things she remembered most about him was his "million-dollar smile."

"We listened to him speak and what he was saying was making sense, and he just made me proud to be an American -- like we can overcome all that's going on at this point," Smith said. "There's a lot of us who are going to contribute in a small way to make a big victory."

Though money has been pouring into the Cain campaign lately, his new volunteers know that they are far behind Mitt Romney and Rick Perry in that regard, and their underdog spirit is palpable.

Darla Phillips, 59, had also never worked on a campaign before she started volunteering for Cain last week.

"He's not got all of the funds that other candidates have, so I just figure he can use all the volunteers he can get," she said.

Another volunteer, who declined to provide his name, said that he saw parallels between Cain's current standing and the buzz that surrounded the under-funded, under-organized Mike Huckabee in 2007, for whom this man volunteered. The former Arkansas governor pulled off a win in the Iowa caucuses four years ago.

Asked whether a key difference was that Huckabee spent most of his days in Iowa leading up to the caucuses, while Cain has made only sporadic visits to the state and doesn't plan to return until mid-November, the volunteer had a ready-made response.

"Yeah, but Huckabee didn't last through Texas," he said. "He over-invested in Iowa. He won by 10 percent and didn't have enough to last through Texas. Cain needs to finish a strong second in Iowa and then he needs to last."

Cain's Iowa campaign plans to utilize social media in more creative ways to provide "virtual activities," an effort to connect the candidate with the GOP grass-roots community in Iowa without him physically being present.

Grubbs admitted that he was originally skeptical of Cain's decision to focus on cable news appearances and campaigning in states that don't play a role in the critical, early nominating season but was persuaded by what he calls the "Block model."

The namesake of Cain's campaign manager, Mark Block -- who attained a place in presidential campaign lore when he took a drag from a cigarette in a bizarre Web ad -- the model calls for an inversion of the traditional path to presidential success.

"In this era where Facebook has fully manifested itself in the United States and where cable television debates are becoming the most important decider for whom people support, your model shifts from organizing first and gaining momentum second to another way where you say let's gain momentum and public support first and then go in and harvest the votes," Grubbs said. "I still believe that candidates have to be in the state, and they have to press the flesh, but I think we've moved into a hybrid model."

Despite avowing their support for this model, it is clear that Grubbs and Cain's Iowa volunteers would prefer to see the candidate more in the Hawkeye State and less in, say, Alabama, where he held a rally over the weekend.

But if Cain continues to visit Iowa only sporadically, his skeleton staff and legions of volunteers there are happy to do the work for him -- to the extent that they are able, at least.

"Since the very beginning, Mr. Block has said that he will either be proclaimed a brilliant campaign strategist or he'll have the most egg on his face out of everyone because it is so unconventional," Lockwood said.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.