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.
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