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Herman Cain is entrusting a lean campaign staff with minimal presidential experience to translate his rising support in the GOP primary into victory at the polls.
That staff is led by Mark Block, 57, the chief political strategist and campaign manager all rolled into one whose expertise is in grass-roots organizing. His last significant role on a presidential campaign was in 1988, when he served as the Wisconsin executive director of George H.W. Bush’s campaign. The campaign doesn’t work with a pollster and has no plans to hire one, still lacks a dedicated fundraiser and recently hired a communications director with zero campaign experience.
During a 45-minute interview with Roll Call on Sunday, Block discussed his relationship with Cain, the Georgia businessman’s unconventional approach to running for president and an admittedly untested, nontraditional campaign strategy that puts less influence on the early primary and caucus states. With less than three months before the first votes are cast, Block is confident, saying his strategy is designed to tap into tea party energy that he said has been underestimated by the competition.
“Obviously Iowa and New Hampshire are important states. But we’re not running a two-state strategy,” Block said over coffee at Union Station, after shepherding Cain from CNN to CBS to appear on the morning talk shows. “History will tell whether Karl Rove is right or Mark Block is right. Unlike all of the other presidential cycles ... this is not my father’s campaign. You have this whole new paradigm out there of this grass-roots movement.”
Cain isn’t big on bringing in “high-priced consultants,” Block continued. “Cain’s brilliant, not just in marketing, in understanding what the American people are looking for in leadership and how to message it. He probably saves us millions of dollars that the other candidates have to spend on outside consultants.”
Cain rocketed to the top tier of candidates in national public opinion polls in September and early October after several months in the low single digits. As of Tuesday afternoon’s Real Clear Politics average gauging the preference of primary voters in the race for the GOP nomination, Cain was in second place with
16.4 percent. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was in first with 21.9 percent and Texas Gov. Rick Perry was in third with 15.3 percent.
Block conceded that Cain needs to be competitive in the traditional early caucus and primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as Nevada and Florida — and that he has to win at least one to be viable in the states that follow. That could pose a challenge, although Cain’s polling in the early states has begun to catch up to his national numbers.
According to the Real Clear Politics average, Cain’s support stood at 18 percent in Iowa, 15 percent in New Hampshire and 8.7 percent in South Carolina. Those ratings are good enough for a second-place standing in Iowa and New Hampshire and third place in South Carolina.
Block said the campaign has operatives on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, as well as Georgia, where the campaign is based. He said the campaign would be staffing up “rapidly” in additional states, especially given the accelerated primary calendar.
But even as Block declined to dismiss the importance of the early states — he put particular emphasis on Florida — he differed from seasoned GOP presidential campaign operatives as he argued that Cain’s strategy for victory was built around a new paradigm that called for harnessing the energy of tea party and other conservative activists around the country. Arizona and Michigan are two states that Block mentioned as significant to a Cain victory.
“When Mr. Cain says that we’re running a campaign that’s out of the box, you know, it’s different, it has as much to do with what’s happened in America the last two years, with the explosion of the tea party movement — the citizens’ movement — than it does, typical, this is the way you run a presidential campaign,” Block said.
“Cain’s support is not an inch thick. It’s deep,” he continued, adding that the campaign has been focused on building a grass-roots infrastructure in all 50 states. Block referenced Cain’s recent straw poll victories as evidence of his candidate’s support, saying they matter more than other such poll wins by Cain’s competitors because “we haven’t bought them.”
Block assembled Cain’s staff mostly from his relationships during the five years he worked for the Wisconsin branch of the conservative activist organization Americans for Prosperity. Block and Cain got to know each other a few years ago during the hours they spent driving together while jointly engaged in a project to expand AFP into Michigan and Ohio.
Cain, most recently a motivational speaker and talk-radio host, has structured his campaign like a corporation, complete with traditional corporate job titles, reminiscent of his years at Coca-
Cola and Pillsbury and in running the Godfather’s Pizza chain. Cain also has served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and president of the National Restaurant Association.
Cain’s title is CEO, with Block serving as chief operating officer and chief of staff. Linda Hansen, the campaign’s executive vice president and deputy chief of staff, has been responsible for “development,” the Cain campaign’s term for fundraising. Hansen’s biography does not show any traditional campaign experience. Jamie Brazil, vice president of national field and political operations, served on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign. Brazil is a longtime friend of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman under Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, is the new vice president of communications and also serves as Cain’s foreign policy and security adviser. Rich Lowrie, who has served as the managing director of a wealth management practice in Cleveland, is vice president and economic security adviser. Michelle Gwaltney, vice president of operations, is responsible for running the business aspect of the campaign. Scott Bieniek, vice president and general counsel, previously worked for GOP election lawyer James Bopp Jr.
Block acknowledged the inexperience of his staff but coolly downplayed its significance.
“Herman Cain is not handled,” he said, explaining the role the candidate plays in the campaign.
“Who writes his speeches? Herman Cain. Who prepares all of his talking points? Herman Cain. Who gets him ready for stuff? Herman Cain,” Block said. “We don’t tell Herman Cain what to do.”
Block said Cain’s third-quarter fundraising would be competitive but declined to provide details.
Block said he expects the primary campaign to boil down to a two-man race between Cain and Romney by late fall, with the Georgia businessman wrapping up the contest by the end of January or sometime in February. Block said fundraising has picked up dramatically but suggested it has a ways to go, saying Cain refuses to go into debt to hire staff and pay for other campaign activities.
“While we’re not afraid of Gov. Romney, his money is a challenge,” Block said.