Returning to the state that made him a rising star seven weeks ago, Herman Cain stumps this morning in South Florida as a different candidate, nagged by questions about his foreign-policy expertise and his handling of sexual-harassment allegations.
The top-tier Republican presidential candidate began Wednesday morning at the Claude and Mildred Pepper Center in Sweetwater where he sung happy birthday to Mayor Manny Morono, was serenaded with a rendition of ‘Guantanamera’ and was asked by the crowd to talk about Cuba, which he omitted mentioning.
“What about Cuba?” he asked. “One of my principles is: Go to the source closest to the problem. You will find the solution… I want to get from Cuban leaders a solution what we should do.”
After a translator spoke, Cain said “I don't want to take the pressure off. I want to put more pressure on… Vive Cuba Libre!” The crowd roared.
Cain, who last week stumbled over questions about what he would do in Libya, seemed to know little about Cuba. His campaign kept reporters at bay, and when asked about the Cuban Adjustment Act and the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, Cain seemed stumped.The policy allows Cuban immigrants who have made it to US soil to stay.
“Wet foot, dry foot policy?” Cain asked. His press handlers interrupted as Cain diverted his course and ducked back into the building. Later, when he emerged, he was asked again by another reporter. Cain wouldn’t answer.
“Gotta run, gentlemen,” Cain said. His staff promised he’d answer questions later at the Versailles Restaurant, a Little Havana nerve center for Miami-Dade’s politically active Cuban-American community, which accounts for more than 70 percent of the county’s 368,000 registered Republicans.
Cain, though, wouldn’t talk to reporters there, either. A FOX reporter asked Cain what he thought of President Obama’s easing of travel restrictions to Cuba. Cain said that was a “gotcha question.”
At Versailles, Cain sipped cafecito and munched on croquetas “How do you say ‘delicious’ in Cuban?” he asked.
The crowds were enthusiastic. In Sweetwater, some of the retirees affectionately referred to him as “el negro,” marveling at the sight of an African-American Republican. African Americans make up just 1.5 percent of the GOP in Florida, where 16 percent of the state population is black.
At Versailles Juan Mederos, a 47-year-old from Miami Beach, held up a Cuban flag poster decorated with “Cubans for Herman Cain” and said the business-man outsider was the best man to turn government around. Mederos said he liked Cain’s strength. When asked about the multiple sex-harassment claims against Cain gave him pause, he said “It has.”
But Mederos surveyed the field and figured Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich weren’t best for the job. “On a personal note, I vote for the alpha male, “ Mederos said. “Cubans are a conservative people.”
Miami-Dade’s Republican executive committeewoman Liliana Ros, though, said she was turned off when Cain said “Free Cuba now!” She said it was pandering, or more specifically: “b.s.”
Cain later appeared at Wings Plus in Coral Springs and then attended the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach. Though the Tampa Bay media market carries the most electoral weight in a GOP primary – followed by Orlando – the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market accounts for about 13 percent of a Republican primary vote.
The West Palm Beach media market makes up another 9 percent. South Florida can make a big difference. In 2008, John McCain rolled up an 80,000 vote margin against Mitt Romney, whom he beat by just 96,000 votes statewide. Cain is the first of the Republican candidate this season to host a multi-city tour in South Florida. He might also attend a conservative rally Friday in Jacksonville and visit Sarasota later in the month.
Florida is fertile ground for Republicans. The unemployment and home-foreclosure rates are stubbornly higher than the nation’s. With 29 Electoral College votes – more than 10 percent of the total needed to win the White House – Florida is the biggest swing state that President Obama is most likely to lose, according to recent polls.
Cain outlined his candidacy in three parts: Foreign policy, his 9-9-9 tax plan and the need to harvest more domestic energy. Cain won big applause for saying he’d stand by U.S. allies, specifically Israel. And he blamed Obama for having a “foggy foreign policy.”
But the candidate has been foggy himself. Cain’s troubles deepened Monday in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel where he struggled with basic questions about Libya. His campaign is also fending off a federal elections complaint alleging that a nonprofit run by Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, impermissibly paid for campaign expenses.
Conservatives, who blamed the staff chief for mishandling Cain’s response to the harassment allegations, called for Block to be dismissed. Cain refused.
Some Republicans were already questioning Cain’s foreign-policy bonafides and were uncomfortable with Cain’s earlier comments that he didn’t know the name of the president of “ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.” Though the comment was a joke, Cain’s joshing hasn’t always helped him on the campaign trail. Cain’s visit comes at a crossroads in his campaign.
The last time he made a high-profile trip to Florida was in late September for the Republican Party of Florida’s Presidency 5 debate and straw poll.
Then a cellar-dweller in the polls, Cain soundly defeated his opponents and rocketed to the front of the Republican pack. But then came the allegations that he mistreated women – charges he denies. Since then, Newt Gingrich has risen to frontrunner status in some polls.
A recent survey from Public Policy Polling, which typically polls for Democrats, showed the percentage of those Republicans who viewed Cain negatively doubled to 31 percent, while those with a favorable opinion fell by 9 percentage points to 57 percent. A McClatchy-Marist poll Tuesday showed Cain fell to third place. And a Quinnipiac University showed Cain in front, but was hampered by doubts about his honesty when compared to Romney or President Obama.
“The top has proven to be a dangerous place in this GOP race though and we’ll see if he can sustain it for very long,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling.
But Cain is far from out. He’s a tea-party favorite, and he inspires crowds like no other candidate in the race. Cain also admits he doesn’t have all the answers. But he said it doesn’t matter.
“I’m often criticized about the fact that I’ve never held public office,” he said. “Criticized with the fact that I don’t know this and I don’t know that and I don’t know that and I don’t know this... you know a leader doesn’t have to know everything but a leader has to know something,” he said. “I know how to surround myself with good people.”