Before his campaign was threatened by a published report on past accusations of sexual harassment, Herman Cain was riding high in recent national polls. But in order to win the Republican presidential nomination, he's going to have to prove he's able to mount credible campaigns in the early primary states.
Cain staffers and party operatives in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada say the campaign has made recent hires and is ramping up efforts to capitalize on the momentum. But Cain, and his Republican colleagues, have to contend with the head start and deeper pockets of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has been enlisting volunteers and identifying likely voters for months, if not years. In many states, local GOP party members say Romney has essentially kept the infrastructure in place from his 2008 presidential bid. And Romney has continued to lead polls in the first four contests--Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida--despite narrowly trailing Cain nationally.
Nonetheless, the crowded GOP field and anyone-but-Romney mentality amongst many conservatives has obviously his rivals with an opportunity, if they can translate buzz into an effective ground game in the coming weeks.
"The game is decided by boots on the ground and therefore turnout ," says Mack Shelley, a political science professor at Iowa State University.
Iowa caucus Jan. 3
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Romney, whose campaigns boast the largest war chests of the contest, both have paid staffers on the ground in Iowa. Perry has recently begun airing television ads in the Hawkeye state to "reintroduce" himself to voters. Much like early frontrunner Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Perry rode an initial wave of popularity when he entered the presidential contest, but has since fallen in favor. The New York Times reports that he also now boasts the largest field organization in Iowa. Keith Nahigian, Bachmann's national campaign manager, called Iowa "the center of everything." The congresswoman, who was born in Iowa and represents a neighboring state in Congress, catapulted to the head of the GOP field following a straw poll win earlier in the year. Her campaign has since fallen in polls and performing well in Iowa is a must for her. In a show of local support, her campaign released the names of more than 60 "grassroots leaders" located in southeast Iowa who will help organize during the upcoming caucus. But Texas congressman Ron Paul might have a surprise showing in the caucus state, thanks to his fervent legion of young supporters, Shelley said.
New Hampshire primary (expected) Jan. 10
Next up is New Hampshire, where the pressure is on Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to perform. Huntsman, who is polling about 1 percent nationally, has essentially retracted all his efforts in other states to focus on the moderate GOP base of the Granite state.
For Romney, New Hampshire is the state of expectations--the other candidates will try to downplay their own while labeling anything but a Romney blowout as a sign of weakness. Romney holds a large lead over GOP rivals in the polls, thanks to his time as governor in neighboring Massachusetts and emphasis on courting the state's Rockefeller Republican-types since the 2008 election. He also has owned a home in Wolfeboro, NH since 1997.
"Perry has the money but not the organization; Cain has a lot better name recognition and favorabilities than Perry, but doesn't have the money or the organization either; and Romney may not have the ideal message or be the ideal candidate, but he has the organization and the money," said Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire and director of the UNH Survey Center.
Smith said Perry could get the proper infrastructure in place in time for the January primary, but the window is closing.
As for Cain, his New Hampshire state director said he has made additional hires, bringing the paid staff total to three full-time and one half-time employees..
"In the week following the Dartmouth debate in Hanover, we got 1,000 telephone calls at the office," said Charlie Spano, Cain's New Hampshire director. "Many of whom were people that wanted to donate money, volunteer and the majority looking for additional information on platform positions."
Cain trails Romney by 27 points in the state, according to a recent CNN/Time poll, and Smith said it's too early to tell if the Godfather's Pizza magnate can compete.
South Carolina primary Jan. 21
South Carolina also appears primed as an opportunity for either Cain, who has recently been on a book tour in the south, or Perry. While the recent CNN/Time polls showed Cain within two percentage points of Romney, who leads the field with 25 percent, Perry hopes to appeal to his fellow southern conservatives. For Perry, it's close to a must win state because he's not likely to do well in New Hampshire and will need a strong performance to prove his viability.
The Cain campaign now has four paid staffers in the state with more hires anticipated, a local official said, adding that a bus tour for South Carolina is in the works.
A local GOP official reported that the South Carolina Republican office had received a significant increase in calls about Cain recently, but Clemson University political science professor David Woodard says support for all the candidates is soft right now because voters have not been tuning into the race yet.
"It appears to me that the electorate is open to appeal," he said. He added that Perry has hired the most people and has the most visible ground game at this stage, with Romney coming in second.
Florida primary Jan. 31
Florida GOP operatives say activity has ramped up for many of the campaigns, now that it appears the primary date has been set for Jan. 31.
Romney was staffed up early on and now has two regional offices. More recently, Cain announced a group of advisers locally.
But Brian Hughes, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, said the Sunshine state provides some real challenges the other early states don't, including costly television markets, a huge geographic area and a diverse Republican party.
"Whoever wins here is going to have the ability to say they had the organization and the resources and the campaign that could win in such a big, diverse state," he said. "There's no such thing as a proto-typical Florida Republican."
Cain's early straw poll victory in the state, which propelled his meteoric rise nationally, also isn't necessarily indicative of how the primary will play out, Hughes said. He said Cain worked every event "like a demon" and gave the concentrated audience a great speech.
"Not to diminish what he's done, but translating that into a primary victory on the 31st takes people and money," Hughes said.
Perry's campaign unveiled a list of 17 'county leaders' located in southeast Florida last week in an effort to expand his presence, which already includes at least one field office.
Nevada caucus Feb. 4
Capping off the early states is the Nevada caucus, which up until recently was a primary state. The change means it's hard to predict which voters will turn out and how effective different candidates will be at rallying support, one local GOP official said. He said campaigns for Romney, Cain, Paul, and Perry all had at least one paid staff member on the ground at this stage and observed that while support for Romney is the strongest, it's also soft and could shift with some effective television advertising.
Romney and Perry are clearly the men to beat when it comes to established ground games--their resources and hired hands are head and shoulders about the rest. But neither has been able to capture both the hearts and minds of a majority of Republican voters so the race remains open, especially now that Cain has recently stumbled in the media spotlight.