Cain shifts from politician to pundit, goes on 'truth tour'

Polls were tightening in Pennsylvania for the presidential race as Herman Cain touched down Wednesday at the state’s flagship university on his nationwide campus “truth tour.”

And the McDonough, Ga., businessman who competed in the Republican presidential primary last year responded by giving a stirring speech about himself, discussing his views on Mitt Romney and Barack Obama only when a Penn State student asked him about the most recent debate.

As he transitions from candidate to pundit, Cain — who has not been called upon as a surrogate for the Romney campaign — maintains that his role is not to advance the GOP cause.

“This wasn’t designed just to help Romney,” Cain said of his tour, which has focused on presidential battleground states. “If you think Barack Obama’s policies and leadership is the way this country ought to go, fine. I’m just presenting the facts so people can be able to connect the dots.”

A year ago Cain led polls for the Republican presidential nomination. By December he dropped out of the race, consumed by personal scandal over allegations of sexual harassment and marital infidelity. He has often blamed his flameout on the news media for obsessing over the stories of women Cain said were lying, as well as the candidate’s own policy stumbles.

In January he becomes a card-carrying media member himself, taking over a nationally syndicated show from Neal Boortz on AM 750 and 95.5 FM WSB that will instantly afford him millions of ears.

His talk at Penn State in many ways derived from his presidential stump speeches, as Cain continued to tout his slogan-ready plan of a 9 percent personal income tax, 9 percent corporate tax and 9 percent national sales tax. Cain pushes for more domestic cultivation of fossil fuels and sharply reduced government spending, mirroring most Republicans.

But in an age where talkers such as Sean Hannity have more influence than most officeholders, Cain is looking to the power of the microphone. In that sense his post-candidacy path might most resemble that of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who hosts popular radio and television programs.

When asked at Penn State about his future — with the audience goading him to make another presidential bid — Cain replied that he will not rule out another run, but he is more focused on growing his radio show from 220 to 400 affiliates.

“I’m going to be talking to 10 to 12 million people a week, telling them what’s going on,” Cain said. “I want to be in a position to put pressure on Congress in order to start solving problems instead of just kicking them down the road. I want to have a major media presence in order to help people understand what’s going on, so we have more people [who] when they go vote will be informed voters.”

In State College the stage was bare except for a couple of “truth tour” signs, the production values minimal. There was none of the political rally hoopla of canvassers and bumper stickers.

A mix of students and townies clutched cups of beer purchased in the theater lobby. They laughed and cheered knowingly at Cain’s signature speech-closing quote of a song from the movie “Pokemon 2000,” and many said they had seen him on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Those comedic bits place Cain in a faux Oval Office dealing with hypothetical crises. In one, he looks at the camera and deadpans: “Citizens of Earth, it was the spirit of humanity that built this planet. … It is that same spirit of humanity that will allow us to destroy the aliens.” The left-leaning show’s joke is that it is absurd to think of Cain as president. And yet he was for a time a serious contender for the office.

Neeraj Kumar and Mike Farley take “The Daily Show” view. After the talk, the Penn State seniors scored Facebook-bound photos of themselves with Cain before he got into his limousine. They practically skipped down the street, wearing homemade Cain-themed shirts and bearing the fresh afterglow of meeting an idol.

“I’d love to get a beer with Herman Cain,” Farley said.

But vote for him? Not a chance.

Kumar and Farley are Obama supporters who disagree with Cain’s policies but love him for his wit, bluntness and willingness to be the butt of the joke.

“Just the [stuff] that comes out of his mouth,” Farley said, trailing off as both started to laugh.

To Cain, the comedy is just another way to increase his visibility. He told the Penn State crowd he goes on “The Daily Show” because “that’s what you watch. And even though it is satire, there is still a lot of truth that comes out of those skits, so I may continue to do those.”

He delivered the line with a rasp, as the cross-country tour has worn out Cain’s vocal cords. His stops often include a breakfast with community leaders, a lunch with business owners and an evening speech at a college campus. He arrived in State College by charter plane from Pittsburgh, where he had a morning event but had to cancel a radio interview because of his exhausted voice.

Since dropping out of the presidential race in December, Cain has endeavored to remain in the spotlight. He wrote a new book about his 9-9-9 plan, hosted a poorly attended rally and activist training in Washington, hosted 2,000 tea party supporters at a “unity rally” in Tampa, Fla., on the eve of the Republican National Convention, and has continued a steady stream of media appearances.

He has launched a website, CainTV.com, that features a Cain-style blend of policy and humor. The nationwide tour is sponsored by Job Creators Solutions, a donor-funded nonprofit Cain started with Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus.

The tour began in September in Iowa and wraps up Thursday at Ohio State. Jordan Harris, the chairman of the Penn State College Republicans, set up the Cain talk as part of a weeklong series of Republican-oriented speeches. Harris said Cain drew a broader crowd than most of the group’s events because he is seen as funny and entertaining.

“Herman Cain is probably more personally likable than any candidate,” Harris said. “Ron Paul is probably more popular, but favorable? Oh yeah, Herman Cain. People like Herman Cain.”

Many in the crowd were there because they backed him as a candidate, as well.

“We need people [running for president] who aren’t politicians,” said George Nelson, a Penn State sophomore who appreciated Cain’s business background. “I don’t know if it will happen, though.”

Nicci Dresden, a junior, said she also liked Cain’s business-oriented approach, but she came eager to learn more about the presidential race.

“I’d say I’m more liberal,” she said, “but based on Obama’s performance over the past four years … it’s not a clear-cut decision for me.”

Cain did not tell her to vote for Romney. Instead, he laid out the challenges facing the nation and his solutions: blow up the tax code, spend less, be more aggressive in foreign policy. He told the audience to stay active and informed but avoid the “mainstream, lamestream, lapdog media.”

And Cain had just the alternative.

“I have this thing with the media: If you cant beat ‘em, join ‘em,” he said. “So I’m going to become one of ‘em. The difference being, I’m going to tell you the truth.”