DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Most Americans haven't heard of Herman Cain, the former head of a chain of pizza restaurants who is considering seeking the Republican presidential nomination.
But in Iowa, home to the nation's first presidential caucuses, Cain has caught the attention of conservative activists influenced by the tea party movement who aren't bothered by candidates who have succeeded in business but have never held a public office.
"He's creating quite a buzz," said former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Richard Schwarm. "He is someone Iowa caucus-goers are going to take very seriously."
Cain, 65, from suburban Atlanta, has visited Iowa several times recently and will return to Des Moines on Monday for a conservative forum. Cain likely will express views similar to other speakers, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, but he'll offer a vastly different resume.
Apart from a failed 2004 run for the U.S. Senate in Georgia, Cain hasn't sought election to public office. Instead, he held a series of high-profile business positions that culminated with part ownership of the Godfather's Pizza restaurants. He left the company in 1996 and among other positions has worked as host of a radio program in Atlanta, where he espoused his views against abortion and in support of a strong national defense, a smaller government and a return to the gold standard.
In January, he announced the formation of an exploratory committee to consider seeking the GOP presidential nomination. "I couldn't sit back and watch this country continue to go down the wrong track," Cain said in a telephone interview. "What we have lacked is leadership."
His message is finding an audience, especially among tea party activists. Last month he was invited to speak at a Tea Party Patriot gathering in Phoenix, where he won a presidential straw poll. "He's very, very engaging," said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the organization.
Steve Scheffler, a member of the Republican National Committee and leading social conservative in Iowa, said Cain was "beginning to garner some interest" in the state. Last fall Cain campaigned for two state legislators aligned with the tea party who defeated incumbent Democrats.
Republican strategist Rich Galen, who worked on former Sen. Fred Thompson bid for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, said some conservative supporters are noting that it didn't take long for Barack Obama to rise from community activist to U.S. senator to president. Like Obama, Cain is black, putting him in a small category of African-American conservatives.
Schwarm said even little-known candidates can compete in Iowa against those with better national name recognition. In 2000, Steve Forbes finished a strong second in the caucuses behind George W. Bush but far ahead of John McCain.
"He is a long shot, but so is almost everyone else right now," Schwarm said. "The variable is how active will the tea party people be."
Cain said his business success has left him wealthy, but not at a level where he could self-finance a campaign. Cain said he's eager to travel through Iowa and other early-nominating states, meeting one-on-one with voters.
"Leadership is the ability to take a good idea and sell it," said Cain. "When the public understands it, they will demand it. You've got to be able to sell the idea."