“We are an army. And it’s huge.” Bette Lavars, 52, stood on the sidewalk of West 57th Street, hoping to spot Herman Cain.
The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and—until a few days ago—surprising Republican Party presidential frontrunner was expected to walk past at any moment. He was in town for his first major New York City fund-raiser, at the Russian Team Room, and the events of the past several days—which included the airing of decade-old allegations of sexual harassment and one accuser’s graphic description of Mr. Cain’s having forced her head toward his crotch—had turned what should have been a routine meet-and-greet into a circus, with dozens of reporters and TV cameramen—“the paparazzi,” Ms. Lavars called them—in tow.
A retired Air Force officer in from Long Island, she held in one hand a sign that said “I’m a Veteran and I Support Herman Cain.” In the other she kept a continually refreshed cigarette. She explained that she was an online organizer of Mr. Cain’s, coordinating hundreds of supporters on Facebook.
At least 20 were expected at the rally to show support for, and maybe catch a glimpse of, Mr. Cain, but so far only two other similarly middle-aged, chain-smoking women had joined, holding signs that said “Yes We Cain” and “LOL @ Mainstream Media” and waving miniature “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.
“We are a grassroots effort. We don’t coordinate with the campaign. That’s what they mean when they say that this campaign is unconventional.”
Among the Cainaics in midtown, the consensus was that Mr. Cain was innocent of all the charges against him.
“No, no. I’ve investigated it more than any journalist in the mainstream media. That [Sharon] Bialek, I watched the press conference. O.K., so she starts talking about what Herman Cain supposedly did to her. I said to myself, ‘That sounds like rape.’ And then she says, ‘But I didn’t tell my boyfriend.’ I said, ‘Bingo! You are a liar!’ It doesn’t pass the smell test. The first person I would have told is my husband so that he could have beat the crap out of him.”
A well-dressed woman on her way to the East Side walked by and paused to tell the women that they sucked and that Herman Cain did to.
“Fucking idiot,” one of the women responded. “Probably an Obama supporter.”
She would only give her name as Martha and said she had trooped down from Yonkers.
“Been there, done that,” she said between puffs of her cigarette. “We have seen it with Clarence Thomas. We have seen it Sarah Palin. We saw it with Michelle Bachmann. Every conservative who is black or female gets vilified. Why don’t we talk about Solyndra? Why don’t we talk about Fast and Furious? Why don’t we talk about Light Squared or Beacon Energy, O.K.? Why don’t we talk about we still haven’t seen Obama’s college transcript? There are all sorts of mysteries. Let’s talk about Jeremiah Wright. Let’s talk about Bill Ayers.”
Another member of group added, “Can you explain to me why the man is in business for 40-odd years and the only time people are coming out of the woodwork is now and they are all from the National Restaurant Association? Were there any complaints at Pillsbury? Were there any complaints at Burger King or any of his other jobs? Did anybody investigate these women or their backgrounds? I figured it out before the rest of you guys reported it.”
We asked her why she supports Mr. Cain.
“He calls it as he sees it and he is not part of the Beltway machine, O.K.? Look at the mess we are in. You have book smart and you have street smart and right now we need street smart. We need a CEO that cut costs and looks at the bottom line, who can look at a PNL statement say, ‘This is what we need to cut.’”
Her fellow Cainaics agreed. They like that he was a businessman, that he was an unapologetic conservative. And most of all, that he was not Mitt Romney.
“I had to hold my nose and vote for Bob Dole. I had to hold my nose and vote for John McCain. And I am not going to do it anymore. I want a real conservative,” said Ms. Lavars, in between puffs. She explained that she was for Rick Perry, but his debate performances turned her off.
“Romney is a checked pants Republican. The ones who defy or go against the conservative brand to get along with the Democrats.”
As she spoke, “the paparazzi” began to disperse. Word had gone out that Mr. Cain had snuck into the Russian Tea Room through a back door, and was already inside. Ms. Lavars puffed on another cigarette, disappointed.
Inside, about 100 or so supporters paid upwards of $1,000 to snack on salmon and pasta, and sip Diet Coke and club soda (despite the free booze, few drank) and hear Herman Cain speak.
Most of New York’s major political donors—Paul Singer, Ken Langone, Woody Johnson—have signed on with Mr. Romney’s campaign, in some cases after a brief flirtation with Chris Christie. The Cain supporters, meanwhile, are a motley bunch, many of whom are making their first major financial foray into presidential politics.
The alpha Cainiac is Blair Fensterstock, the founder of his own Wall Street law practice. Mr. Fensterstock said he met with Mr. Cain in the spring when he was invited to a lunch with him at a downtown steakhouse with a handful of other potential donors. Mr. Cain wasn’t yet an official candidate, and Mr. Fensterstock arrived at the restaurant 15 minutes ahead of schedule. He went to the bar, ordered a Diet Coke, when in walked Mr. Cain.
“I was inspired by his maturity, by his common sense approach towards both economic and foreign policy,” Mr. Fensterstock recalled.
Mr. Fensterstock said that he had never been much involved in politics before, save for a beer party for John Lindsay when he was 14. He estimated that he has raised close to $200,000 for Mr. Cain, however, including the event at the Russian Tea Room and one later in the day at the 101 Club, an event that was the brainchild of Peter Kalikow, real estate developer and former MTA chair.
“The appeal of Herman is that he is the antithesis of what is going on in the White House now. It is such a refreshing to have a proactive, business approach.”
But is this campaign really serious, or is it an elaborate hoax cooked up to sell more copies of Mr. Cain’s book? After all, before the sexual harassment allegation, the most attention the campaign received was when a web ad featuring campaign chief-of-staff Mark Block smoking a cigarette while staring into the camera and extolling the virtues of his boss went viral.
“Look, this is not an ordinary campaign. Mark Block is a grassroots type of guy. The ad gets at the fact that Herman Cain’s appeal is that he is so refreshingly different from what we have had in the Republican Party.”
The rest of the New York-based Cainiacs include a small network of young former supporters of Tim Pawlenty’s, the Minnesota governor who dropped out of the race amid diminishing support from the donor class. They had come together before for Republican Jewish causes, and contributed to a few congressional races, and banned together, according to one member of the group, who didn’t want to be named for fear of angering his employer, “to figure out the best way to make sure we have a voice and make sure the views we held were expressed.”
They are not well-known to much of the city’s political or donor class.
“When I am in a room full of Republicans, there is a good chance I will know a lot of them,” said Karol Markowicz, a Republican political operative who actually worked on Mr. Cain’s doomed 2004 run for the U.S. Senate and who attended the Russian Tea Room fund-raiser. “And except for one guy I recognized from the ‘Herman Badillo for Mayor’ campaign, I recognized no one.”
Still, this deep-pocked and largely untapped network quickly rallied behind Mr. Cain after Mr. Pawlenty dropped out.
“Here is the situation,” said one. “All the wise men have screwed up everything. How about all of the geniuses who set up the E.U.? You take the people who set up the E.U.—they would have been a great fit in the Oval Office or their presidential palace and they have fucked everything up. The reality is it really doesn’t matter if you can picture Herman Cain in the Oval Office. All of the wise men have betrayed us.”
A number of the local Cainiacs first came together around the candidate after a couple of meetings at Mr. Fensterstock’s apartment in Battery Park City. Like their brethren on the sidewalk, they flirted with Mr. Perry (“After the first debate, we were like, forget about that”) and said that what they most liked about Mr. Cain was that he was not Mitt Romney.
“In a general election where most people don’t have jobs, and don’t have money, they aren’t going to go with the guy with several hundred million dollars. We think Herman is more electable! He’ll get African-American voters, he’ll get Latino voters. In a general election he will be more exciting and more electable.”
But the argument isn’t just electability. In an era where everyone from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street seems consumed with anger, Mr. Cain is giving those on Wall Street—and who can afford $1,000 fund-raisers—a voice to fight back with.
“Wall Street is very dissatisfied with constantly being attacked by people. There is the Occupy protest out there, and we are not happy with being goats,” said one Cainiac. “And some of want to have an opportunity to counter the arguments.”
Enter then, Herman Cain.
“His message is about economic opportunity, economic equality. His message is that this country was founded upon certain freedoms.”
But people don’t typically give thousands of dollars to a candidate, and convince their friends and colleagues to do the same, just because they happen to like a guy. Getting in early behind Mr. Cain allows these young, first-time-in-politics donors to get in on the ground floor. One member of the host committee expressed delight at being able to slip Mr. Block a note about Iran policy during Mr. Cain’s remarks.
“Who knows, maybe he will use it next time,” he said. Plus, they say, that even if Mr. Cain loses, he seems destined for a long career in politics, maybe as a cabinet secretary, or as a vice president, or maybe a run down the road.
“The word longshot has been used by many other presidential candidates who have gone on to win,” said Mr. Fensterstock. “I don’t believe Herman Cain is a longshot. He is a shooting star. He is beloved by people.”
And, like his brethren outside, he doesn’t think the most recent round of allegations are true, or will derail the campaign.
“I received some initial inquiries after the news first came out, but Herman Cain supporters are Herman Cain supporters,” he said. “I’ve known Mr. Cain for a quite a while and I know these allegations are totally baseless.”
Outside on the street, a young aide to Mr. Cain came out.
He lit a cigarette and said, “I am doing my best Mark Block impression.”
He told the reporters still waiting in the cold to call back their cameramen and their colleagues: Mr. Cain would be coming out soon.
Inside the Red Room of the Russian Tea Room, the sexual harassment allegations hardly came up at all. Mr. Block, in introducing Mr. Cain, said that despite all the brouhaha of the past 10 days, “Herman is doing great. His wife is 100 percent behind him.”
He said that if they were doing so poorly, how come they were raising close to $1 million a day?
“Other campaigns wish they were doing as badly as we are,” he said.
The mood in the room was charged with Cain love. He called on people by their first names. He talked 9-9-9. People present described him as “Clintonesque.” One man prefaced his question by saying, “Sir, I think you will be the next president.”
By the door, a horde of press had gathered, ready to pounce as soon as Mr. Cain exited. A Russian Tea Room doorman, dressed as a Beefeater, nervously looked on. Every few minutes the doors would swing open, dozens of flashbulbs would pop and an audible groan would be heard when it was determined to be just a paunchy white guy, or a 10-year-old girl on an outing with her mother, and not Herman Cain. Tourists had begun to congregate. The female Cainiacs stood guard, hoping still for a glimpse or a shouted word of encouragement.
Mr. Block came out and sat in Mr. Cain’s limo, smoking a cigarette. A beefy bodyguard with a Bluetooth followed and took his post, keeping the press away. A few moments later, he made a circular motion with his finger at someone unseen inside, a signal that all was ready to go for the candidate to make his appearance. Everyone was in a crouch. It was time.
A news photographer received word that Mr. Cain had snuck out the same way he had snuck in, through a back door. Heads were hung in disappointment, and the crowd dispersed. Reporters joked that if only the campaign were as nimble about messaging as it is about avoiding the press, maybe Herman Cain would still be in first place.
As for Ms. Lavars and her army of three, they checked out the Veterans Day parade nearby, got coffee and kept their sign-waving going on a windswept plaza in front of Club 101, where Mr. Cain held a fund-raiser that evening. Eventually, Mr. Block, aware that they had been waiting all day to see the candidate, let them inside for a private meeting.
“I said to him, ‘Herman, can I hug you, or are you afraid?” Ms. Lavars said out in front of the club, grinning from ear to ear. “We all started laughing and he gave a big hug. Wonderful man.”