Mitt Romney and Herman Cain: A tale of two GOP businessmen

The two leading contenders for the GOP presidential nomination are also the two candidates whose claim to fame is their private-sector experience, and each has made that experience central to his argument that he’s best positioned to straighten out the economy.

But Mitt Romney and Herman Cain come from different ends of the business world. Their differing identities — Romney as the private equity, Wall Street-esque vice president, Cain as the fast-food CEO — reveal the disparate ways each will appeal to voters hungering for a “real-world” candidate.

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“Herman Cain is a good guy. Vote for either one of us and you’ll be happy,” the former governor of Massachusetts said Monday at a town hall when asked about how his business experience matched up to Cain’s.

Romney could be playing nice because Cain appeals to the same group of conservative voters as Romney’s main rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And as Cain has risen in the polls, Perry has fallen.

Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has climbed from a position of obscurity to neck and neck with Romney in a matter of weeks. Romney and Cain are tied at 17 percent among Republican primary voters nationally, according to a CBS News poll released Oct. 4.

The lingering question, as Cain and Romney go head to head, is whose business background will be seen as more in line with the type of leadership needed to change the course of the American economy.

While managing pizza franchises is a relatively self-explanatory vocation that many middle-class workers can relate to easily, private equity is more esoteric.

“People eat at Burger King and Godfather’s, and Cain saved both of those,” said Erick Erickson, the editor of the conservative blog Redstate.com. “I don’t know that they relate to the average Wall Street firm.”

And small-business owners might look at Cain’s position at the helm of a restaurant chain and see someone who understands the day-to-day forces that drive growth. Others are likely to doubt that the practical lessons learned from fast food translate to running the largest economy in the world.

“What’s more important is that they understand what businesses go through,” said Stephen DeMaura, president of the pro-growth group Americans for Job Security. “Not all private-sector experience is made to be equal.”

For Romney, who also ran for the GOP nomination in 2008, economic expertise has long been synonymous with the Romney brand.

“In the private sector, he brought folks together, turning around businesses, creating jobs,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Tuesday while announcing his endorsement of Romney.

After finishing his business and law degrees at Harvard University, Romney worked for a consulting firm for two years before coming onboard at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought struggling companies, turned them around and sold them at a profit. The company grew and profited immensely under Romney’s leadership.

Yet while Romney’s experience turning around failing operations could bolster his credentials for restructuring suffering government agencies, it also saddles him with a record of making business decisions that sometimes ended in employees being fired or jobs moved overseas.

Those themes play into lingering anger toward Wall Street following the collapse of major banks, and the growing Occupy Wall Street movement that blames huge corporations for favoring their own profitability over the well-being of average Americans.

“Romney’s more of the Wall Street guy. It’s easier to say, ‘Hey, this guy is an elitist East Coast person,’ ” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Exploiting Romney’s ties to big business could be an effective attack both for Democrats and for Romney’s primary opponents.

And it wouldn’t be a new strategy; in July, an unaired ad surfaced from the campaign of former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who fought off a Senate challenge from Romney in 1994. The ad accuses Romney of presiding over major layoffs and giving profits to investors while the working class suffered.

On the other hand, the Wall Street connections and Northeastern Republican network that could boost Romney are less intimate territory for Cain.

A Georgia native, Cain started his business career analyzing computer systems for Coca-Cola, then moved to the Pillsbury Co., where he headed the Philadelphia region for Burger King. His region outperformed the others before Cain was tapped to rescue Godfather’s Pizza.

In part by dramatically slashing the number of franchises and in part by aggressively pursuing strategies and products that had been successful for similar companies, such as Pizza Hut, Cain stabilized the company and returned it to profitability.

Asked to differentiate Cain’s business background from Romney’s, Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon avoided mention of the former Massachusetts governor.

“We like to talk about Mr. Cain’s track record of proven success as a business leader, and his common-sense solutions that will get our country back on the right track,” he said.