THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- Sixty-year-old Susan Tubbs last week waited in line behind 200 people at a Barnes and Noble store, and when it was finally her turn, she held out her copy of This is Herman Cain and meekly voiced a desire to give the author a hug. In spite of his handler's insistence otherwise, presidential candidate Herman Cain halted the swift-moving line, slipped around the barricading booth, and hugged her.
"Sometimes I break the rules," Cain boomed with a toothy grin, pausing to allow a friend of Tubbs photograph the moment.
Indeed, Cain's candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination has broken the rules. When the former Godfather's Pizza executive formed a presidential exploratory committee in January, pundits immediately deemed him unelectable. He had never been elected to public office, his campaign lacked basic organizational infrastructure, and he was virtually unknown outside of business circles. But lately, Cain's long-shot campaign has afforded him many hugs, even more photo ops, and the satisfaction of proving the pundits wrong.
Quite a few Republicans, it seems, were yearning for a hug from a candidate, not with a long resume in government, but without the sort of Washington experience that they see at the root of the country's problems.
"Look at what just happened!" Tubbs gushed after her Cain embrace. "This guy's a real person. He's not a politician, and that's very important to me. But he's got the economic experience, and he says it like it is."
Establishment Republicans, who initially dismissed Cain's candidacy as a pipe dream, were jolted to attention last month, when Cain trounced Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the Florida GOP straw poll, 37 percent to 15 percent. In the last two weeks, he has placed either second or tied front-runner Mitt Romney in national polls, and he has attracted up to 1,000 people at this book-signings.
In a political climate driven largely by the tea party movement that once propelled Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to the front of the pack, Cain's arrival in the top tier shouldn't be shocking.Watch Herman Cain on Sunday's Face the Nation:
Last week, a Gallup poll showes that a record-high 81 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed. Florida straw poll participant Bonnie Benefield, of Gainesville, said she had just cast her vote for Cain for the same reason critics originally laughed him off.
"I think he's exactly who the founding fathers had in mind when they set up the office of the president," Benefield said. "He's a businessman; he's not a career politician. He understands what it's like to grow up in the U.S., and he understands what it's like to do business in America."
It's a line Cain himself uses to his advantage. In an interview with CBS News and National Journal last week, he said that he is "the only business problem-solver that's running for president of the United States.
"Now Mitt Romney tries to say that that's him," Cain said. "But see, he was a Wall Street executive. I was a Main Street executive. I've actually made pizzas, made hamburgers, cleaned restaurants, swept the parking lot, OK? I've done all that. I have been a hands-on business executive throughout my career, so I can better connect with people who are working for hourly wages. I can relate to the small businessman. Why? I have been one, and I'm still one."
His description of himself as a newcomer to politics is one of his best applause lines on the stump. At a Houston Junior League breakfast on Thursday, the crowd spontaneously burst into applause when Cain mentioned that he's never held public office. At one point, he told the crowd that he wasn't born "poor," he was born, "po'" - "We had to work our way up to poor," he said.
Later that day, Cain's book-signing event at Texas A&M University in College Station, Perry's alma mater, sold out, and drew 1,000 supporters.
Bobby Tyson, a 23-year-old from The Woodlands in Texas, said he was initially "excited" when Perry entered the race, but is now supporting Cain. "In terms of establishing a relationship with the tea party movement, I think that people really can relate to the fact that he's just an ordinary guy who's worked his way up from very humble beginnings," said Tyson, who added that he thinks the timing is right for a non-politician to chance a White House run.
"I think Barack Obama has actually done Herman Cain a lot of good, because he's woken up a lot of people who were busy working, ordinary Americans who were trying to provide for their families," he said. "So I think people can really relate with the fact that Herman Cain's never held public office before, and I think he's extremely electable."
In the 1980s, Cain worked his way up through the ranks at Pillsbury to manage more than 400 Burger King stores in the Philadelphia area. He turned the region's restaurants from the least profitable to the most profitable. Pillsbury then assigned Cain to turn around the flagging Godfather's Pizza, and within two years he had made the pizza chain profitable. Following a decade-long tenure at the chain's helm, Cain went on to host a talk radio show in Atlanta, called The Herman Cain Show.
"Here in Florida we realize he's a person, he's not a politician, and he's turned a lot of businesses around," said Sandy Russo, who was in line at The Villages book-signing. "I don't know why it's such an absurd idea that a businessman should be president when the economy looks like it does."
As Cain weaved his way through the bookcases to shake hands with the people who turned out at his College Station book-signing, one couple observed him from a distance as he joked with supporters and asked a group of A&M students about their football team's record this season.
"That's the most laid-back politician I've ever seen," the woman marveled. Her husband corrected her, "That's not a politician at all."