Under the harsh glare of the media spotlight, Herman Cain has taken a hit for gaffes and stumbles – especially when it comes to foreign policy issues. But in his supporters’ eyes, that’s just another badge of honor for the kind of candidate they’re looking for: an unpolished nonpolitician who brings a businessman’s perspective and an everyman’s style to the presidency.
At a rally at a hotel in Nashua, N.H., Thursday – his first visit to the first-in-the-nation primary state since sexual harassment claims surfaced – a healthy dose of people showed up to give him a closer look as they size up the GOP candidates.
They found themselves elbow to elbow with some passionate fans – many of them women eager to stand up for a down-to-earth candidate whom they believe can get the country back on the right track.
“He changed careers four times, and came up from being poor to being successful at everything he tried to do,” said Ann-Marie McKenna, who stood on stage behind Mr. Cain during his stump speech. “He’s brilliant, but he talks like a regular person.”
David Ridge, who describes himself as a staunch, pro-life conservative, said, “The more the media attacks him, the more I like him.”
Cain and his supporters defend his ability to surround himself with experts and be a strong leader, without needing to know all the details of foreign policy.
“He’s a good manager. You can’t know everything, but he would pick good people to get the job done,” said Richard Barbalato. He plans to vote for Cain in the primary, and said more people in New Hampshire are warming up to the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive, judging by the number who give a thumbs up when they see his Cain bumper sticker.
But it will be an uphill battle for Cain, or any other candidate trying to chase Mitt Romney’s strong support in polls here.
Cain showed some slippage in a Bloomberg News poll conducted Nov. 11-12. Among 504 likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire, just 8 percent say Cain is their first choice (down from 17 percent in a mid-October poll). Mitt Romney is holding at 40 percent, Ron Paul is up to 17 percent, followed by Newt Gingrich at 11 percent. Jon Huntsman Jr. is running neck and neck with Cain at 7 percent.
The Bloomberg poll also hints at how the sexual harassment allegations are influencing voters. Forty-three percent said they would rule out a candidate who has faced such accusations.
But at the Nashua rally, Cain supporters said it was suspicious that the allegations surfaced while Cain was surging in popularity.
Gloria Cain’s defense of her husband earlier this week was another reassuring factor for Ms. McKenna, who said her experience is that “you know your husband.” Others in Nashua said the allegations did give them pause, but hadn’t risen to the level where they’d rule him out.
For W.J. Heath, Newt Gingrich was starting to look like a good choice, until his ties to Freddie Mac surfaced. Now Cain is looking better, he said. Morality is important, he said, but it’s still not clear to him whether the allegations against Cain are true.
The Nashua rally also attracted a trio of men in their early 20s who had seen the YouTube video that’s been popular in recent days showing Cain’s long pause and meandering response to a question about events in Libya from journalists at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “I’m here to see if anything funny happens,” said Matt Wentworth of Hollis, N.H., who has a preference for Ron Paul.
Cain put a different twist on that incident in his speech: “[The media] spend more time focusing on when I’m not talking than when other candidates are talking. That’s a compliment ... I think before I speak,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
There is some indication that the campaign is trying to avoid the possibility of similar video incidents. It rejected C-Span’s request to broadcast a meeting that Cain was supposed to have Thursday morning with the editorial board of the Manchester Union-Leader. The newspaper reported that the campaign tried to cut the time down to 20 minutes rather than the original one hour or more that had been planned, and the meeting didn’t go forward. The Cain camp has said the newspaper cancelled the interview.
Several undecided voters who came to check out Cain said they didn’t hear anything particularly new in his speech, but were enthusiastic about looking closely at his proposals.
Richard Maloon of Merrimack, N.H., said he’s seen several candidates in person in his search for “the adult” in the race. (Mr. Maloon is well into adulthood, insisting with a wry smile that his age be described as "old as dirt.")
He’s concerned that Cain’s "9-9-9" tax plan may just set up a new sales-tax revenue stream “that will be abused.” But he said Cain’s speech confirmed that he has “the core values of a Republican” and he’ll be examining more policy statements from Cain.
Phyllis York of Londonderry is trying to see as many GOP candidates as she can in person. Cain’s business experience attracts her, but the recent news of scandal caused her to reevaluate. That makes it all the more important, she said, “to get a closer perspective.”
Ms. York said she came away impressed, largely because “those that are for him really like him.” But she’s still undecided and wants to know what Cain’s 9-9-9 plan would mean specifically for New Hampshire residents.
In his speech Cain also addressed his tax plan (saying it would cut out “sneak attaxes”). He criticized the Occupy Wall Street movement, affirmed his anti-abortion stance, and called for energy independence – an issue he says he’ll tackle with a detailed plan in the coming weeks.
“Stay inspired,” he urged the audience. “You know what makes the liberals mad?” he said with his signature grin. “All of the junk they’ve thrown at me in the last two weeks – I’m still smiling and I’m still inspired,” to which the audience responded with chants of “Yes we Cain!”