Herman Cain's moment seems to have arrived. He is surging in the polls, and getting positive notice from a conservative movement still looking for an alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But, according to several veteran GOP operatives, many Republicans question whether Cain can harness this momentum. They doubt he has the political savvy or organization needed to translate it into sustained success and, eventually, votes rather than following the same boom-bust arc that Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have, to different degrees, traveled.
A strong performance in the last GOP presidential debate and a surprise victory in the Florida straw poll have given Cain momentum. Since then, he has been getting positive notices from powerful conservatives voices. Political analyst Michael Barone, for example, recently wrote that there is a "real possibility Cain could win enough primaries and caucuses to be a real contender."
And he has soared in several polls, climbing into a first place tie with Romney at 17 percent in a CBS News poll released Wednesday. Previously Cain had scored a mere 5 percent in CBS's poll. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Tuesday showed Cain tied with Texas Gov. Rick Perry for second behind Romney with 16 percent of the vote. And a Gallup poll also released Tuesday shows Cain with the highest "Positive Intensity Score"--a number that measures how passionate supporters are about a candidate--measured for any GOP presidential candidate to date.
He is unquestionably booming. But questions linger about his ability to avoid a bust.
"He's done amazingly well with little, but right now it's like he is on a sugar high, he is soaring now, but he doesn't have anything to back him up," says Matt Mackowiak, a veteran GOP campaign operative. Mackowiak says pundits and GOP insiders are not convinced Cain has got the resources to take the lean election machine he's been running and transition it into a top-tier organization. "He is good at delivering a message, but it is difficult to run for president," adds Brian Jones, who was the senior communications director for President Bush's re-election campaign in 2004. "It requires a crazy amount of organizing and sizeable effort to do successfully."
Mackowiak and others note that Cain doesn't have the kind of veteran senior staff one would expect on a successful presidential campaign. For example Cain has spent little on consulting firms. His most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission, which covers the first half of 2011, shows that his campaign spent only $55,505 "consulting" out of more than $2 million expended in that period. By contrast, Romney spent more than $1.1 million on consulting in the same period, and $5.6 million overall on his campaign. It's also unclear whether he's hired any established pollsters. In fact, Cain's communications director, Ellen Carmichael, recently resigned, a move that raised questions about the campaign's viability.
More broadly, he also seems to lack campaign infrastructure and a strategy for tackling the primaries and caucuses, GOP operatives say. "I'm not sure he can raise the army it takes to win a primary or caucus," says Republican consultant Terry Holt, a former top aide to House Speaker John Boehner. "You have to win votes to win the nomination." And, Mackowiak adds, Cain's choice to run a national campaign rather than focusing on key early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, calls into question how serious his bid is. Candidates working with limited staff and resources tend to spread themselves too thin if they try and run a nationwide campaign.
Cain's decision to spend most of October promoting his new book, This is Herman Cain!, rather than campaigning in early states is also raising eyebrows among GOP operatives. "He just doesn't look like he is serious about this," Mackowiak says.
Time will tell if Cain has what it takes to break away from the pack. Insiders say it is clear he isn't being written off, but the GOP needs to see more mobilization. Fortunately for Cain, Holt says, the party still hasn't settled on anybody.
"In the Republican Party, we are still dating," he says. "We haven't decided we are going to go steady and we have not promised ourselves to any one candidate. New candidates have advantages and disadvantages. My sense is that Cain is a quick study, but we will see whether or not he can leverage new enthusiasm into new support."