The Ticket

Herman Cain says he’s running for president. But is he really?

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

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(Scott Olsen/Getty Images)

Herman Cain is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, according to a litany of recent primary polls. But is he actually running for president?

In what is either a genius move or a decision that could ultimately derail his 2012 hopes, the former Godfather's Pizza executive has suddenly become the man to beat in the Republican primary race by essentially not running an actual campaign.

Cain's 2012 rivals have packed their calendars with town hall meetings and campaign rallies in recent months. But Cain has largely skipped the traditional events that usually mark a presidential effort.

Instead, he's appeared at signings for his new book, This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House, and joined his rivals at debates and other campaign forums.

In Iowa last weekend, Cain had just one event on his calendar: He made a quick appearance at the Iowa State University football game. Later that night, he joined his GOP rivals at a candidate forum hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. But while his opponents, including Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann, worked the crowd ahead of the event, shaking hands, posing for photos and signing autographs, Cain was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, the former pizza executive was sitting inside his campaign bus, which had been parked outside the event for more than an hour. After his speech, Cain conducted a TV interview and then quickly exited the event, as he was mobbed by Republican voters aiming to get more face time with the 2012 hopeful.

"What's your favorite movie?" a man yelled, briefly drowning out Michele Bachmann, who was on stage speaking at the time.

Cain lifted a finger to his lips, motioning for his fans to quiet down.

"'The Godfather,'" the candidate loudly whispered, as he signed one last autograph and moved toward the exit, a crush of people following him.

Cain's campaign has plainly benefited from his newfound celebrity among Republican voters. A CBS News/New York Times poll released Tuesday found Cain leading onetime frontrunner Mitt Romney by 4 points, 25 percent to 21 percent. Two weeks ago, the two were tied at 17 percent.

Cain's surge in the poll is largely thanks to his popularity among self-described tea party supporters. Among that group, he leads with 32 percent support, handily beating Romney, who is at 18 percent, Newt Gingrich (15 percent) and Ron Paul (9 percent).

But the big question for Cain is whether his momentum is sustainable, given his unorthodox approach to campaigning.

Until recently, Cain had no formal campaign manager, and former staffers have complained the effort lacked focus. Mark Block, who went to work for Cain as his "chief of staff" and "chief operating officer" earlier this year, has stepped into the role. It's Block who is the star of Cain's unusual new campaign ad, which features the strategist staring into a camera and smoking.

Block has defended Cain's unusual campaign strategy. Among other things, he claimed Cain is running a 50-state campaign and said he's taking strategic clues from Obama adviser David Plouffe's memoir of the 2008 campaign, "Audacity to Win."

But while Cain has said he's expanding his staff, there's so far little evidence he's doing so in key early voting states such as Iowa—where voters are set to cast their first ballots in the race 10 weeks from now. Republican officials in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida have told Time's Mark Benjamin that the Cain operation has yet to leave any noticeable footprint in those states, either.

"There is no sense of a tangible organization that you can point to," Rich Killion, an uncommitted GOP strategist in New Hampshire told Time. "If you said, 'Rich, tell me who is running the effort here?' I could not even give you that person."

But so far, none of that appears to be hurting Cain, who seems to be benefitting from less from voter excitement about his famous 9-9-9 plan to overhaul the tax system and more from lack of enthusiasm about the Republican candidate field in general.  And that's a dangerous position for Cain, whom Sarah Palin recently criticized as a "flavor of the week" candidate.

Cain responded to her comment, insisting "there's more to that flavor than meets the eye." The question going forward is whether voters will see him enough to actually find out if he's right.

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