Several of Florida's most prominent Republican political pros have jumped on board Herman Cain's presidential campaign as he tries to ramp up the operation to catch up with his surging popularity.
"Mitt Romney might have the establishment, but Cain has the hearts of the people that vote. We'll see what happens on Jan. 31," Kathleen Shanahan, a Tampa businesswoman and former Jeb Bush chief of staff, said Tuesday referring to Florida's fourth-in-the-nation primary contest. "I think Mr. Cain is going to support an effort to win Florida, and he will win Florida. He's raising the money now that he needs, and he has the intensity in his voters that is at least double, probably triple the intensity of Gov. Romney's."
Shanahan, one of Florida's most influential GOP power brokers, is one of Cain's four Florida state chairmen, along with former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, a former Romney supporter; former state Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who had been enthusiastic about Texas Gov. Rick Perry's candidacy; and state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood.
"He's got a lot of Reagan qualities," Rick Baker said of Cain. "He's a straight talker and he wants to be bold for the future."
Also joining the Cain campaign as senior advisers: Tampa media consultant Adam Goodman and campaign strategist Arlene DiBenigno of Tallahassee, a veteran of campaigns for Bush, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.
Cain, the 65-year-old former business executive and talk radio host from Georgia, skyrocketed to the top of the Republican field after his overwhelming upset victory at Florida's Sept. 24 Presidency 5 straw poll. But he's trying to quell widespread doubts that his skeletal campaign operations in key early states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida can harness the grass-roots energy behind him.
"His campaign is really an emerging grass-roots campaign that had started already and was organizing even before the national campaign started," Baker said.
Along with the growing Florida team being added to the loose confederation of volunteer activists across the state — some of who are grumbling about the new emphasis on establishment political professionals — Cain recently hired respected former Iowa state Republican chairman Scott Grubbs to lead his effort there.
"We believe that Herman Cain's momentum from his win at the state convention last month is just a harbinger of things to come," said Goodman, one of Florida's most sought-after political consultants. "This is not like people are bummed out about Romney, they're just incredibly enthusiastic about Herman. ... He has the message and the sustainability to win."
Hillsborough County Republican chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush on Tuesday resigned her position to join Cain's campaign as director of county chairs. She joins an organizing team that includes Kamilah Prince of Tallahassee as director of coalitions, St. Petersburg insurance company executive Barbara Haselden as a director of 9/12 Patriots, Lou Marin of Orlando as a director of flat tax and tea party supporters, and Nancy Hayes of Miami Beach as volunteer coordinator.
Meanwhile, Perry is looking to re-boot his faltering campaign, which had been seen as the main threat to Romney until Perry faltered and Cain surged. On Tuesday, Perry proposed scrapping the nation's graduated income tax and replacing it with a 20 percent flat tax — a proposal echoing Cain's "9-9-9 plan" that includes a 9 percent personal income tax, a 9 percent national sales tax and a 9 percent tax on businesses.
Perry this week also added some veteran campaign consultants: pollster Tony Fabrizio and media consultant Nelson Warfield, who both worked on Scott's successful and often blisteringly negative 2010 Florida gubernatorial campaign.
Romney has a vast network of supporters and elite fundraisers developed over nearly six years of campaigning in Florida. On Tuesday, he touted the endorsements of 24 state legislators, adding to the 12 already on board.
"Mitt Romney has the strongest leadership team, the strongest finance team, and the strongest grass-roots organization of any of the presidential candidates in Florida," said Brett Doster, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign. "To date, we have announced key leaders from the Bush era who are experienced in (get-out-the-vote) operations as well as the support of Adam Putnam, Jeff Atwater, and 36 legislators, and we are just getting started. We are running a focused game plan and taking nothing for granted, but we are confident of victory in January."
Despite the establishment support for Romney, many conservative activists are skeptical of his conservative principles and have been looking for an alternative to the ostensible frontrunner.
"Over the past month or so, what I've heard from Romney supporters is not enthusiasm for Romney but enthusiasm for the hope of (Marco) Rubio being Romney's running mate," said Sarah Rumpf, a Republican consultant in Orlando who has been helping Cain, noting that Rubio has been firm that he will not run for vice president.
Shanahan suggested that while Romney's business experience is impressive, Cain's is more so, having risen from humble roots to become an successful executive at corporations including Pillsbury, Burger King, Godfather's, and as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.
"Mr. Romney was an investor in business. Mr. Cain ran businesses. He grew them and ran them," Shanahan said.
Similar to recent Florida polls, a New York Times/CBS poll released Tuesday showed Cain leading nationally among likely Republican voters with 25 percent support, compared to 21 percent for Romney, 10 percent for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 8 percent for Texas Rep. Ron Paul and 6 percent for Texas Gov. Perry.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]