ORLANDO, Fla. -- Not everyone needs to go to Disney World to have fun in central Florida.
After one of Herman Cain's strongest showings yet at a Republican presidential debate Thursday, and two days with conservative activists in the state, he won the "Presidency 5" straw poll in Orlando over the weekend, beating front-runner Texas Gov. Rick Perry by more than 20 points.
While straw polls are not scientific and their results can be poor indicators of whether a candidate will win a party's nomination--the latest actual Florida poll put Cain near the bottom--they can help spark some momentum, especially for lower-tier candidates. For Cain, a 65-year-old businessman, mathematician, author and radio host from Atlanta, Georgia, his straw poll win could well be the high-water mark of his campaign. And by his own admission, the path that brought him this far wasn't an easy one. The morning before the straw poll, I met Cain for coffee in a hotel near the convention center that hosted the debate and straw poll. As we discussed the early phase of the Republican primaries, he told me that before coming to Florida, he had nearly called it quits on two occasions.
"The thing that I've learned about myself in this campaign--because I've never had this happen to me before on a single challenge--is that I've gone to the brink, ready to pull the plug, but came back, twice," Cain said. "I've only had two days where I personally felt, should I pull the plug? For different reasons. That's how frustrating a campaign can be."
When I pressed for details, he said he'd prefer to keep them to himself.
"I can't tell you what those two days are," he said. "But think about the number of days we've been on this campaign. Two ain't that bad."
Cain is certainly no stranger to adversity, having recently overcome Stage IV colon and liver cancer.
Even though he's known as the "pizza" candidate for his years as head of Godfather's Pizza, his background is much broader than that. After he graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in mathematics and a minor in chemistry in 1968, Cain landed a job as a ballistics analyst for the Department of the Navy, where he was responsible for the calculations that ensured battleship rockets hit their targets.
"It's not an easy thing to do," he said.
Cain later completed a master's degree in computer science and entered the business world where he led several companies--most recently Godfather's--and chaired the National Restaurant Association and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. His résumé--from mathematician and rocket scientist to restaurateur and now politician--isn't exactly a typical one for a presidential candidate. But Cain said that while his presidential run may look unlikely from the outside, it's actually part of his larger career trajectory of seeking out new ways to test himself.
"I'm bored if I don't have a challenge," he said.
Cain said the run for the White House is his toughest challenge yet--and it's been anything but boring. Despite the frustrations of running a national campaign, you can tell he's enjoying it. But it doesn't take much to get him riled up.
After a few caffeine-heavy refills at our corner table, I asked him about President Obama's new effort to raise taxes on the wealthy, and Cain just about blew a blood vessel--especially when I mentioned the part where Obama says it's about "math" not "class warfare."
"Can I be blunt? That's a lie," Cain said, before the sound of his voice began to rise noticeably higher. "You're not supposed to call the president a liar. Well if you're not supposed to call the president a liar, he shouldn't tell a lie. If it's not class warfare, it's highway robbery. He wants us to believe it's not class warfare, oh okay, it's not class warfare. Pick my pockets, because that's what he's doing!"
Cain paused, took a breath and looked at me.
"I'm not mad at you, I just get passionate about this stuff," he said. "I have to tell people because I get so worked up . . . . I'm listening to all this bullshit that he's talking about, 'fairness' and 'balanced approach' to get this economy going."
As anyone who watched the past couple of debates knows by now, Cain has his own plan that he says would steer the country out of its economic downturn. He calls it the "9-9-9 Plan," and it would replace the current tax code with three flat, nine-percent federal taxes on income, consumption and business.
"With 9-9-9 guess what? How many loopholes?" he said, tapping his fingers on the table like a drumroll. "None. Everybody gets treated the same. What a novel idea."
As the straw poll and his recent fundraising numbers suggest, Cain's message is resonating with the conservative movement's influential base of tea-party activists; for these supporters his status as a non-career politician with an extensive background in the private sector is nearly as strong a draw as his ideas and policy proposals. But despite his recent surge in support, few expect Cain's momentum to carry him on to victory at the Republican National Convention in 2012.
Cain insisted that the prognostications of a few pundits won't stop him from pressing on as far as his donors will carry him. At the same time, though, he said that this campaign will be his last foray into politics.
"I'm not planning to run for another public office," he said. But regardless, it's been "a hell of a challenge."