GUY RAZ, host:

Republicans who hope to oust President Obama in 2012 gathered in South Carolina Thursday for the first debate of the campaign season, and viewers gave top marks to Herman Cain. But who is Herman Cain? He's a former pizza chain CEO who's never held elected office.

Cain is our focus today in NPR series on the GOP presidential hopefuls. It's called The Spark, as in the spark that got them into politics. The spark for Cain came in 1994 during a nationally televised town hall meeting with Bill Clinton.

NPR's Kathy Lohr has the story.

KATHY LOHR: Cain was living in Omaha, Nebraska, back in 1994 and he was the CEO of Godfather's Pizza. President Clinton was crisscrossing the country to sell his health care reform plan. Small businesses were among the skeptics, and Cain stepped forward to question the president during a town hall meeting.

Mr. HERMAN CAIN (Businessman): If I'm forced to do this, what will I tell those people whose jobs I will have to eliminate?

President BILL CLINTON: Let's ask - let's talk a minute about what you would have to do.

LOHR: During the exchange, President Clinton asked Cain why he could not raise the price of pizza by a small amount to cover the cost, but Cain did not back down.

Pres. CLINTON: What if all your competitors were just like you, wouldn't you be able to do it then?

Mr. CAIN: OK. First of all, Mr. President, with all due respect, your calculation on what the impact will do, quite honestly, is incorrect.

I almost didn't go to that town hall meeting that day, but I think it was meant to be.

LOHR: Cain is clearly proud, as he recalls the moment.

Mr. CAIN: The next day, I was on every TV morning news show. I'll never forget Ted Koppel that night: The pizza man from Omaha stumped the president last night over his health care bill.

I don't know - this was surreal.

LOHR: Cain became a hero to conservatives who said he helped derail the Clinton health care plan.

Mr. CAIN: What that incident did, it caused people to read the fine print and not take the word of the president just because he was the president in terms of what it was going to do to businesses.

LOHR: In 2004, the African American businessman stepped into his first political campaign, challenging Johnny Isakson for a U.S. Senate seat back in his home state of Georgia. He ran several TV ads, including this one, aimed at the federal budget debate that was going on back then.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Mr. CAIN: I'm not a professional politician. I'm a professional problem solver, and I believe we should cut the salaries of senators and congressman 10 percent until they balance the budget. I call that conservative common sense.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CAIN: That's my message. I'm Herman Cain.

LOHR: Cain didn't come close to winning the Senate race, and he says it's an asset that he's not a political insider.

Now 65 years old, Cain has been the CEO of the National Restaurant Association, an AM radio talk show host, and he's written a number of books. We talked in his campaign and business office in Stockbridge, Georgia, in the studio where he hosted his radio program. An American flag is tacked up on one wall and a picture of Abraham Lincoln on another.

Mr. CAIN: They call me the problem solver.

LOHR: A Tea Party favorite, Cain has been spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire. Also known as the Herminator, low poll numbers don't faze him.

Mr. CAIN: It's all about engaging the American people in the dialogue about solutions, not engaging the American people in just discourse, no. Here's a -an approach to this problem that I'm going to propose to the United States Congress, and I want the American people to understand it and support it. Because I happen to believe if they understand it, they will demand it.

LOHR: He talks about the country's economic crisis, immigration crisis, energy crisis and what he calls a deficiency of leadership in the White House. At this year's Conservative Political Action Conference known as CPAC, Cain said voters have a responsibility to stay informed.

Mr. CAIN: Stupid people are ruining America.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LOHR: In Des Moines last month, Cain told the crowd he was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2006 and given only a 30 percent chance of survival. But he says he beat the disease.

Mr. CAIN: You want to know why? God said, not yet, Herman.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Mr. CAIN: God said, not yet. I got something else for you to do, and it might be to become President of the United States of America.

(Soundbite of cheering)

LOHR: Cain knows he's considered a long shot. But back in 2008, he says President Barack Obama was a little known senator from Illinois who came out of nowhere to win the Democratic Party's nomination. His business colleagues say if conservative voters get a chance to know Herman Cain, they'll like him.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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