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The Long Shot

A campaign adjusts to the big time.

Herman Cain’s communications director had a lot on his mind. I was at a Costco in Northern Virginia on a recent Friday, where the GOP candidate of the moment was scheduled to sign copies of his new book. Getting hold of the campaign had not been easy. The communications director, J.D. Gordon, explained to reporters that it had been hectic. “I think I have [my phone] off right now because I get like a call a minute and a hundred e-mails an hour,” he said. “My staff is just me and our new media guy right now.”

Gordon, a genial retired Navy commander who worked as a Pentagon spokesman from 2005 to 2009, explained that the campaign had hired two more press staffers, who were due to start Monday. This was not a moment too soon: Ever since Cain won the Florida straw poll on September 24, his poll numbers have soared. By the day of the book-signing, several polls had him running second or even tied for first with Mitt Romney. That has left Cain’s campaign—which for months had languished among the GOP primary’s side stories—suddenly struggling to adapt to the big-time.

When I found Gordon at Costco, another reporter was challenging him to produce the names of Cain’s advisers. Recently, Cain had assured Fox News host Chris Wallace that “some of the best economists in this country” had helped develop his “9-9-9” tax plan (9 percent national sales tax, 9 percent flat corporate tax, and 9 percent flat income tax). However, he had repeatedly refused to reveal their names, and Gordon was similarly cagey. There are “twelve well-known public figures providing him with advice,” he said. “[Former] ambassadors, former senior administration officials, and economic experts that are household names.” But he wouldn’t identify them.

What Gordon would say is that the campaign has a staff of 30, including three in-house policy people. Clark Barrow, who joined Cain’s circle as an employee at The New Voice, Inc.—a Cain-owned business that manages his writing and speaking activities—coordinates debate prep. The economic policy point person is Rich Lowrie, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, leads a Wells Fargo wealth management group in Ohio. Foreign policy is handled by Gordon himself, who is responsible for this portfolio in addition to his communications duties—which recently increased when the head spokesperson quit to work on the Louisiana lieutenant governor’s race.

I pointed out to Gordon that Cain has admitted that foreign policy is not his strong suit. “That’s why they recruited me. To help with that,” Gordon explained. He says the campaign hired him after they saw him on Fox News, where he is a contributor. He also writes columns for The Washington Times. “I’ve had about fifty columns published over the last year and a half, and so those are a lot of the things that I tell Mr. Cain.”

One of Cain’s more experienced operatives is his chief of staff, Mark Block. Scott Becher, a Republican consultant in Wisconsin, likens Block to an “aging rock star.” Block, who is in his mid-fifties, was among the biggest consultants in Wisconsin politics before he was caught breaking campaign finance law during a 1997 state supreme court race. He and his co-conspirator had to pay one of the steepest fines in state election history; he was also banned from politics for three years. More recently, Block has acted as director of the Wisconsin chapter of the Tea Party group Americans for Prosperity. But he has never run a national campaign.

My requests to interview Lowrie and Block went unanswered. I did manage to reach Scott Bieniek, the campaign’s general counsel, who graduated from law school in 2008. In an e-mail, he declined an interview, but wrote, “We have a saying on the campaign [that] has become somewhat of a battle cry, and gets us through the ups and downs: Keep your head down and keep selling tickets.”

Gordon told me that the campaign plans to hire more experienced operatives. Still, to do that, Cain will need money. He raised just over $2.5 million in the second quarter (of which he contributed $500,000), compared with Romney’s $18.3 million. Cain has acknowledged that mounting a presidential effort was harder than he expected, remarking, “I could start a new pizza company easier than I could start a new campaign team.”

At the Costco, enthusiastic fans, some cradling stacks of books, waited patiently. Cain arrived in a bus that advertised his “NATIONAL BOOK TOUR.” It was impossible to see him from the back of the line, but, when we heard gleeful shrieks, we knew he had arrived. Later, addressing a sea of TV cameras and digital recorders, he declared, “Herman Cain is not going to be a flavor of the week.”

Eliza Gray is an assistant editor at The New RepublicThis article originally ran in the November 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.