Herman Cain, 2004

The first time I interviewed Herman Cain was in 2006, when I was reporting out a story about black Republicans for one of the many aborted versions of Radar. Cain’s 2004 bid for U.S. Senate had never gotten the attention of Michael Steele’s bid two years later, for some understandable reasons. Cain had run a business but never won an election; Steele was Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. Cain captured the attention of the right-wing blogosphere, but at that point in time, it wasn’t really strong enough to rally around a candidate as it later would for the likes of Nikki Haley and Allen West. Cain wasn’t bitter, but he seemed to know he’d tried to challenge the party too early.

Did Republicans miss a chance by not nominating? Tea Partiers think so: Cain ended up losing to Johnny Isakson, one of the more compromise-friendly conservatives the Senate Republican conference. Cain gave voters all the red meat they could have wanted, spending $3 million to build his image. And he still lost by a 2-1 margin to Isakson. Still, most of his ads survive online.

In this ghostly reminder of a forgotten wedge issue, he stands up for the Pledge of Allegiance: “And I hope the ACLU is listening!”

He hits the same theme here.

In this ad, he defends the Iraq War mostly by demeaning its foes: “The Hollywood crowd is attacking our president.”

Here, sounding more contemporary, he talks up a balanced budget.

And here, we get a foreshadowing of the man behind 9-9-9.

This is fun to think about: What would have happened to Herman Cain had he won in 2004? He and Barack Obama would have been the only African-Americans of the Senate. Cain, not Obama, might have been seen as the more likely national candidate – a black Republican’s path to victory, adding a chunk of the black vote to most of the white vote, would be smoother than a black Democrats? But Cain still would have gotten cancer in 2006. If we take his TARP comments from 2008 at face value, he probably would have voted for the bailout – a vote that weakened Saxby Chambliss in the election months later. No, Cain might be at his absolute strongest now, as a surprise canddiate who has no electoral record, and whose previous campaign is remembered mostly by bloggers.