Cain ad raises questions: Is his campaign serious?

A campaign video featuring Herman Cain’s chief of staff smoking a cigarette spread virally Tuesday on the Internet, reigniting misgivings about the seriousness of the businessman’s presidential campaign.

In the video, posted to Cain’s YouTube channel, Chief of Staff Mark Block talks up Cain’s candidacy with typical campaign rhetoric about taking the country back and getting involved. But it then segues to a dramatic culmination: Block huffing on a cigarette while a singer belts out “I Am America.” Then the video cuts to a close-up of Cain’s face.

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The peculiarity of the video led many to question whether it was a hoax. Once its veracity was confirmed, conjecture turned to whether it was appropriate for a presidential campaign to visually sanction smoking, and what the decision said about the political competence of Cain’s operation.

“I’m dismayed to see a presidential candidate, in his advertising, depicting smoking,” said Patrick Reynolds, founder of the Foundation for a Smokefree America and a grandson of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds. “Children at home are seeing that on television, and it sets a bad example for kids. It’s irresponsible.”

Politicians generally keep smoking and other vices behind closed doors, keenly aware that those in public service are held up — rightly or wrongly — as role models for best health practices. President Obama has acknowledged that he smokes from time to time, but avoids appearing with a cigarette on camera. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has been less guarded, but has never featured smoking in his campaign materials.

Cain’s campaign downplayed the controversy over the ad, arguing it represents a continuation of the non-traditional campaign he has been mounting.


“The message behind the ad was to our supporters that we’re on a roll, we’re excited about what’s happening,” Block said Tuesday on Fox News.

Block said he was a smoker and that the consensus within the campaign was that they should let him appear on camera the way he is in real life.

“There was no subliminal message,” he said. “I personally would encourage people not to smoke.”

That won’t be enough to satisfy those who spot a deeper theme and campaign strategy they say is promulgated by the video’s rejection of cultural norms.

“It’s fairly outrageous and very consistent with tobacco industry imagery of tobacco being cool and sort of rebellious,” said Dave Dobbins, COO of the American Legacy Foundation, an antismoking nonprofit.

Dobbins noted that the history of tobacco advertising is replete with examples of “tough” figures — such as the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel — demonstrating their independence through their pack of smokes. He said that message has led hundreds of thousands of children to start smoking — and many of them to die.

For Cain, independence and toughness are two traits his growing campaign have made central to his image.

But while the edgy, eyebrow-raising move might have made sense early in the campaign, when Cain was an unknown candidate struggling to attract attention, it seems out of place for a candidate who is at the front of the pack and wishes to be taken seriously.

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Almost 80 percent of Republicans now know who Cain is, a 57-point jump since March, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday. That means Cain has achieved the largest boost in name recognition of any candidate this year.

And polls across the country show Cain either tied with or ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), meaning Cain is now in the position of defending his front-runner status, not clambering to stand out from the pack.

That the video put Cain at the center of the political discussion once again is a success in and of itself for Cain’s campaign, said Brian Jones, a Republican strategist who advised then-President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

“But at a moment where there’s this question of if he is a serious candidate, the narrative today is not around the merits of his 9-9-9 plan or the fair tax,” Jones said. “The chatter is around this quizzical video.”