By Shane D'Aprile
Herman Cain's presidential rumblings haven't garnered much national attention, but that isn't because he lacks popularity among grassroots conservatives or because he's shunned visits to early-voting states.
The conservative talk-radio host is a bonafide Tea Party rock star who's a regular at their events and serves as a commentator on Fox News.
By his count, Cain has visited Iowa six times in the past year and has supporters making calls to key activists in the state. He's also made three trips to New Hampshire, one to South Carolina, four to Texas and two to Florida.
In an interview, the one-time Senate candidate and former CEO of Godfather's Pizza told The Ballot Box that he's serious about running and thinks he can shake up the race for the 2012 GOP nomination.
"I would represent that unconventional, non-establishment candidate that a lot of people are looking for," said Cain, a conservative black Republican who described the current field of GOP hopefuls as "the usual suspects."
"I respect them," he said of the Republican names in the mix. "God bless them. But the more people running, the better."
Cain will form an exploratory committee early in 2011, but doesn't expect to make an official decision on a run until "several months into the new year."
What's currently preventing those outside of conservative activist circles from taking Cain seriously -- he's never held elected office of any kind and his only experience as a candidate is a loss in the 2004 Georgia Republican Senate primary.
Still, Cain would undoubtedly have the attention of the grassroots should he run, and he could translate his sizable social media presence and popularity among Tea Party activists into some attention and enthusiasm for his candidacy.
Some GOP operatives in Iowa warn not discount Cain too quickly. Several told The Ballot Box they think he has the profile to make some real noise in the state's caucuses, including Republican strategist Bob Haus, who said Republicans would be foolish to dismiss Cain's combination of "managerial experience" and "dynamic speaking ability."
"I don't think there's any doubt he could have a major impact here if he catches on," said Haus.
Asked if there's one issue he thinks makes him stand out from the rest of the potential field, Cain said it's the comprehensive energy plan he intends to champion.
"We have a path to energy independence in this country and it just baffles me as to why the leadership of either party in Congress or the White House doesn't pursue it," said Cain. "We simply need to remove the regulatory barriers and stop overreacting to the concerns of the environmentalists."
February's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) could serve as a launching pad of sorts for Cain. He's set to speak at the event and said he'll likely take part in the much-buzzed-about CPAC presidential straw poll.
"There is no clear frontrunner in this field right now," he said. "That opens the door for a lot of candidates. The more, the merrier, to me."
Cain recently beat out former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) in an online 2012 straw poll conducted among readers of the conservative blog RedState.
The results are about as unscientific as it gets, but RedState's Erick Erickson admitted some real surprise, noting on his blog, "I would say it is a good sign for Herman Cain that, being relatively unknown, he can generate that much enthusiasm for himself."