COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- Herman Cain may have faded in the polls, but show up to one of his events and you'll wonder how it's possible. Is his campaign less organized than Michele Bachmann's? Oh, yes, by miles. She rolls into the park in the center of this western Iowa city with a busload of stage gear and tables, driven by grips with Hollywood experience who take an hour to put it together and an hour to break it down. Cain arrives at the very same park with a staff and the audio set-up they could put together on short notice. He draws a slightly bigger crowd than Bachmann anyway.
The Herman Cain Show, as seen in this leg of a weeklong bus tour, is a fun, ramshackle mess more akin to an early 2009 Tea Party than a presidential campaign. Cain is running late (he shook too many hands at the last stop, or so goes the spin) so a conservative comedian named Eric Golub, wearing funny sunglasses and a billowy shirt, gets 20 minutes to warm the crowd up. His punchlines veer between jibes at Democrats (the former speaker of the House is the "Pelosiraptor," and Obama is what would happen "if John Kerry and Jacques Chirac had a baby") and outrage at liberal meanness. "They're political suicide bombers!" he says. "They should worship Sarah Palin!"
Cain arrives about an hour late, slowed down by well-wishers at the campaign bus with a giant photo of his face on it. He finds his place in front of the park's fountain, under a metallic gazebo, looking over at least 100 people, most of them in lawn chairs. But first... he waits for a lengthy introduction from a local military hero, who recites the Pledge of Allegiance. Cain takes the stage again, and tells a short story about the way he would consider military decisions. When he ran Godfather's Pizza, a reporter pitched a "gotcha" question and asked why the chain didn't deliver to some black neighborhoods of Omaha. It was simple, he said. Delivery drivers were getting beat up.
"If I wouldn't send my own child there, I wouldn't send your child there!" says Cain. "And that's the same way a President Cain will make decisions about our military."
Cain then... wraps up. He lets a local state Senate candidate speak for a few minutes. No one leaves. Most of the crowd sits and waits; a couple of spectators get up to buy cups with one of Cain's slogans, "How's That Workin' Out For Ya?"
Then Cain returns. He treats the crowd to the fullest version of his stump speech, with all the one-liners. "A reporter told me the other day that my ideas wouldn't work, because I don't understand how Washington works," says Cain. "I understand how Washington works! It doesn't!"
But the spiel is a hit in Council Bluffs, because Cain's origin story, all about how he saved the pizza chain, has some local proof. A Godfather's Pizza franchise sits about a block away, selling Humble Pies and taco-themed platters and ice cream novelties.
"It was supposed to fail," he says. "Pillsbury put me in charge of the company in 1986. They expected it to fail. And it's still here!"
A man named Wayland Massey asks to borrow my pen, so he can fill out a $100 check to the Cain campaign. He fills in the memo line of the check: "Gallon of gas."
(Photo by David Weigel)