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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Herman Cain insists his presidential campaign will regain its momentum. And today he returns to a familiar and presumably friendly venue - the annual convention of Americans for Prosperity. That's the conservative group founded by billionaire businessmen David and Charles Koch. AFP has a long relationship with Cain, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I am America,..

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: This is Herman Cain's campaign theme song. But before that, it was on the sound system at last year's convention of Americans for Prosperity when Herman Cain spoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

HERMAN CAIN: What a wonderful reception. I happen to believe that we will take back our government, not just starting on November 2nd, but starting today...

OVERBY: It was hardly the first time Cain had pumped up the crowd for Americans for Prosperity. The organization enlisted him in 2005 to spearhead what it called the Prosperity Expansion Project. It meshed well with his radio talk show. Cain went on the road networking at state chapters of AFP.

When he landed in Wisconsin, he met his campaign-manager-to-be, Mark Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL RALLY)

MARK BLOCK: We're the premier grassroots organization, working for free markets, less government and less taxes.

OVERBY: That's Mark Block as Wisconsin coordinator for AFP. He was addressing a Tea Party rally in Wausau back in 2009. Block went to work for AFP, as he was coming off three years of being legally banned from Wisconsin politics. The ban was part of a settlement, signed after he was accused of illegally coordinating an attack strategy between a candidate's campaign and an outside group.

That case bears some resemblance to a more recent one. Documents reported on by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel seem to show that Block bankrolled the early days of the Cain campaign with anonymous money from an outside group.

Jeff Mayers is president of Wispolitics.com, a political news service in Wisconsin.

JEFF MAYERS: At the time, AFP needed somebody who knew Wisconsin.

OVERBY: And as for Block...

MAYERS: Well, for a guy who was out of politics and looking to get back into politics, that was probably a pretty good job.

OVERBY: Besides Block, Cain's first press secretary also came from AFP. And Rich Lowrie, the architect of Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan, was on AFP's advisory board back when Cain was giving speeches for AFP.

On Fox News last month, Lowrie said he and Cain started formulating a tax policy years ago.

RICH LOWRIE: And a year before Mr. Cain announced, I got a call from Mr. Block saying, you're not going to believe this, but Mr. Cain is going to run for president and I'm going to be his chief of staff.

OVERBY: Cain's connections to the Koch brothers themselves are also important.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN INTERVIEW)

CAIN: I know the Koch brothers.

OVERBY: This is Cain in a CNN interview last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN INTERVIEW)

CAIN: I don't have a close relationship. But I know them and I respect them, and they know me and they respect me.

OVERBY: Also last month, Koch Industries issued a statement about Cain. Executive Vice President Richard Fink said they haven't formally committed to any of the candidates. But, quote, "Anyone that has spent time with Mr. Cain, as we have, can tell you he is a man of deep dedication to our nation," unquote.

Cain's ties to the Kochs and their group Americans for Prosperity had a practical effect for his fledging campaign. Aspiring presidential candidates usually have built their own networks, a consultant here, a mentor there. Cain found much of what he needed in one place: AFP.

David Primo is a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester.

DAVID PRIMO: What may be changing now is that groups are becoming much better organized around electoral politics.

OVERBY: That is, groups like Americans for Prosperity, with a central office, a big grassroots base, and solid financing which can provide a candidate with one-stop shopping.

PRIMO: So you can see this kind of emergence of a candidate in a way that you hadn't in the past.

OVERBY: So, it means that in many ways, Cain's return to AFP this week is a well-timed homecoming.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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