TALLADEGA, Ala. — He's a mathematician, a minister, a former radio talk show host and pizza magnate. But most of all, Herman Cain is a salesman.
And how he sells.
"The sleeping giant called 'we the people' has awakened," Cain thunders, pacing the stage in his trademark dark suit, brown fedora and "lucky" gold tie, delivering a rollicking, 45-minute performance that evokes an old-fashioned church revival, complete with cries of "Amen" from his audience.
Whether it's selling his book or his presidential aspirations, this is Cain at his best, grinning and joking and wooing a crowd, soaking in the adulation as he vows to lead the cheering masses to a promised land of "less regulation, less legislation and less taxation."
That's simplistic, of course. But so is Cain's message, and he makes no apologies for it.
"They want to confuse you with comp-lex-city," booms the self-styled "Hermanator," accentuating every syllable. "I want to lead you with sim-pli-city."
In the end, he takes no questions, sweeping off to his next stop to the tune of "Rock You Like a Hurricane." His smile disarms everyone whose hand he shakes along the way.
"Is he for real?" asks 75-year-old Jean Waggoner, a longtime Republican activist from Montgomery.
It is a question that has confounded political observers and pollsters alike: Just what to make of this unlikely candidate with an inspirational personal story, a magnetic personality and a campaign like nothing they have ever seen.
Allegations of sexual harassment may have tarnished the image of the 65-year-old Baptist minister. They have certainly rattled his style. His messy denials and memory lapses seem far more like the familiar evasiveness of the "inside-the-beltway" politicians he derides.
But Cain is still doing well in a series of polls, still raising money and still vowing that he's in the race to win.
So the question remains: Is he for real?
Cain himself doesn't offer much of an answer.
His speeches are mesmerizing, delivered with humor and aplomb. But they offer little insight into the man himself and his extraordinary journey from the projects of segregated Atlanta to the boardrooms of corporate America.
"I grew up po', which is even worse than being poor," Cain writes in the introduction to his book, "This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House."
The book is partly dedicated to his father Luther, a janitor, barber and chauffeur and his mother Lenora, a domestic.
Writing of his youth, Cain avoids any detailed examination of those tumultuous times. He glances over the indignities of having to sit at the back of the bus or drink from the "coloreds" water fountain.
While fellow students at the historically black Morehouse College were joining Martin Luther King Jr. in marches and staging sit-ins, Cain joined the glee club. (He is a gifted singer whose mellifluous baritone is often heard during the campaign.)
Cain gets visibly annoyed at suggestions that as a beneficiary of the civil rights movement, perhaps he should have participated more. He took his cues from his father, he says, who taught him never to expect a government handout, never to feel like a victim and to "stay out of trouble."
"Not all blacks in the '60s were activists," says Cain, who labels himself an "ABC — American, black, conservative — and proud of it."
Graduating with a degree in math, he married college sweetheart Gloria Etchison and went to work as a civilian mathematician for the Department of the Navy.
Dreaming of success in corporate America (he wanted to be president of "something ... somewhere," he writes) he left to work as an executive, first for Coca-Cola and then Pillsbury, eventually moving to its Burger King subsidiary in 1982.
Impressed by his performance, Pillsbury chose Cain in 1986 to revive the foundering Godfather's Pizza chain, based in Omaha, Neb.
"As a boss, he was demanding but fair. And he worked harder than anyone else," says longtime friend Spencer Wiggins, whom Cain first recruited as director of human resources for Burger King and then cajoled into joining him at Godfather's.
"But Herman, it's in Omaha, man!" Wiggins protested.
Cain's response: "Sometimes you have to leave your comfort zone if you want to make a difference."
Former employees says Cain blew into Godfather's like the hurricane depicted in his campaign song, shutting about 200 underperforming stores and eliminating hundreds of jobs. At Burger King, he had launched the "beamer" program, encouraging employees to smile at customers. At Godfathers, he started SIN — Solve It Now, a rapid response program to deal with customers complaints.
"He was genuine, warm, demanding and funny; he was the best leader I ever met in my life," says Paul Baird, his regional manager in Seattle. "And he sounded like a preacher! Everyone was like, who IS this guy?"
At Godfather's, Cain regaled employees with motivational speeches, often ending with the same folksy anecdotes he tells in the campaign.
When he was a boy, his grandfather hooked mules to a wagon to bring a load of potatoes to town. Grandkids were scampering all over the place, until they heard the old man roar.
"Them that's going, get on the wagon! Them that ain't, get out of the way!"
The chant was to become a campaign mantra.
In 1988 when Pillsbury decided to sell Godfather's, Cain put together a group that bought the chain in a leveraged buyout. He remained its chief until 1996 when he moved to Washington to become CEO of the National Restaurant Association, a lobbying organization.
It was during his three years with the NRA that two employees reportedly received financial settlements after accusing Cain of sexual harassment.
Cain boasts that Godfather's "had one foot in the grave and one on a banana peel" when he took over, comparing it to the state of the U.S. economy today. In reality, though his stewardship made it profitable, it was never truly competitive with the larger pizza chains.
His years in Omaha were important in other ways. They won Cain recognition as a leader, a visionary, a man on the move. He became a member of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas city in 1992, and would later serve one year as chairman.
He also served on other corporate boards, including Aquila, Inc., Nabisco, Reader's Digest and Whirlpool. Ambitious and driven, a brilliant orator, he was one of the most popular speakers on the local business circuit.
"When Herman Cain was speaking at lunch, you knew people would leave in a great mood, not just because he was funny, which he was," says Loretta Carroll, a local news anchor who often hosted such events. "There was always the feeling that he empowered people a bit. They came away thinking that one person can do things and make a difference in the world."
In 1994 Cain was catapulted into the national spotlight in a memorable exchange with President Bill Clinton during a televised town hall meeting in Kansas City. Speaking via satellite, Cain politely but firmly pressed the president on his proposed health care overhaul.
"If I'm forced to do this, what will I tell those people whose jobs I'm forced to eliminate?" Cain asked, referring to the employer mandate. When Clinton began to explain, Cain persisted. "Quite honestly, your calculation is inaccurate."
Says Carroll: "The Clinton people were not very happy."
But others were enthralled. Jack Kemp, a former congressman, flew to Omaha to meet Cain and later asked him to join the Economic Growth and Tax Reform Commission, a congressional study group.
Kemp, who became Cain's political mentor and friend, is quoted as saying that Cain had "the "voice of Othello, the looks of a football player, the English of Oxfordian quality and the courage of a lion."
Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and fellow African-American Republican who served on the commission, says he was impressed by Cain's ability to look at things analytically and state his case succinctly. Blackwell says there seemed no doubt that Cain would someday run for office.
Cain's first foray into politics was as an adviser to the Bob Dole-Kemp Republican presidential ticket in 1996. Cain flirted with running for president in 2000 but instead backed Steve Forbes.
In 2004, after moving back to Atlanta, Cain ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate.
Partly to stoke his political ambitions, Cain started a career as a talk-radio host, where he honed many of the ideas that later formed his platform and developed a loyal following of fiercely anti-Obama listeners, some of whom would later work for his campaign.
He also worked as a motivational speaker, most notably for Americans for Prosperity, the conservative anti-tax and regulation group founded with the support of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
Cain makes no apologies for his ties to big money. In a recent speech he joked, "I'm the Koch brothers' brother from another mother."
And then, in 2006, as Cain tells it, "God rocked my world."
Diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread to his liver, he says doctors gave him a 30 percent chance of survival. Many supporters thought it was the end — something Cain refused to believe.
Sustained by his faith, Cain says, he took solace in signs like the fact the surgeon's incision resembled a "J'' — as in Jesus. After a year of treatment, Cain says, he was declared cancer free and remains so today. God, he says, had another plan.
So with Gloria at his side, Cain announced his candidacy to cheering throngs in Atlanta on May 21.
Initially, the political establishment paid little attention, deeming him a fringe candidate more interested in promoting his book. It wasn't until Cain began leading in the polls that he came under serious scrutiny.
With that scrutiny came problems.
Cain provoked outrage with some early comments, such as that blacks had been "brainwashed" into voting for Democrats and that he would electrify a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico. Later he said he was joking.
He seemed muddled on abortion, saying while he opposed it under all circumstances, "the government shouldn't be trying to tell people what to do."
He incensed the Occupy Wall Street protesters and their supporters by saying, "If you don't have a job and you are not rich, blame yourself."
His shaky grasp of foreign policy has astounded seasoned commentators. In one interview he didn't understand a question about the "right of return" for Palestinians. In another he seemed unaware that China has nuclear weapons. In a third, he drew a blank when asked about the Obama administration's actions in Libya.
His catchy "9-9-9" tax plan — a 9 percent income tax, 9 percent corporate tax and 9 percent national sales tax — has been picked apart by experts as one that will shift more of the tax burden to the middle and lower classes and drastically reduce revenue.
"It's not just he hasn't thought it out ... he's winging it," conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News. "And that's a real problem."
Cain's initial response to critics was a breezy "I does not care", mimicking a favorite phrase of his grandfather. He'll surround himself with good people, he says, and figure out the answers when he's presented with all the facts.
In a rare moment of introspection Cain recently acknowledged that he thought the biggest misconception about him was that he was not serious. For an instant he seemed reflective. Then he turned on the salesman's charm.
"I'm Herman Cain," he said, grinning. "And I'm not running for second."
But even friends say some of the gaffes have been excruciating. "In terms of substance, he has mountains to climb," says Blackwell, a fellow cancer survivor. "I think he's smart enough to do it, but there are issues."
The issues include the fallout from sexual harassment charges and allegations of financial improprieties on the part of his campaign manager. Cain has flatly denied wrongdoing, calling the accusations a smear campaign.
At first, they didn't seem to dent his popularity. His campaign said it had raised $9 million in October and November.
Even before the charges surfaced, supporters were demanding more from Cain.
At a lavish fundraising dinner in Huntsville during his fall visit to Alabama, Danielle Sanford said that while she was captivated by the candidate's message — "he seemed to hit every source of frustration the average conservative is concerned about" — she chafed at the fact that he didn't take questions or get into specifics.
Having studied Cain's tax plan in depth, the 39-year-old restaurant owner had concluded that it would force her and her husband, Republican state Sen. Paul Sanford, to pay more taxes. "I'd like more clarity," she said.
James Reagan, who runs a small trucking business, agreed that "9-9-9" was too simplistic.
"It's a starting point," he said, after posing for a photograph with Cain and asking him to "help save my business I'm being taxed to death."
"That's my plan," Cain responded.
But his speech didn't offer any new details, just more soaring oratory and thundering delivery. Claiming the mantle of President Ronald Reagan, who "became president because he touched the hearts of the American people," Cain lamented the fact that Reagan's "shining city on the hill has slid to the side of the hill."Comment on this story
"If you give me the opportunity to be your next president," Cain continued, his voice rising to a crescendo, "together we will move it back to the top of the hill where it belongs."
The crowd was sold. It rose to its feet in deafening applause.
"Yes we Cain," they chanted. "Yes we Cain."
AP researcher Barbara Sambriski contributed to this report.