TRAVERSE CITY — Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain delivered a populist message with the right ingredients for an audience of northern Michigan conservatives, spiced with an energy rarely seen at local political events.
Cain spoke of God, guns, freedom and personal responsibility before he played up his outsider image as a businessman, not a politician. A crowd of more than 1,000 people who crowded into Streeters nightclub Thursday responded with roars of approval.
"Awesome, it was awesome," said Kaylene Smith, of South Boardman. "It was exactly what I expected, but it was a lot more personal, a lot more real."
Cain was "energetic and charismatic," said Republican Party activist John Roth, of Long Lake Township.
"I think it was neat that he came up here to northern Michigan," Roth said. "One of his staff told me we doubled the turnout in Grand Rapids. Northern Michigan sure loves him."
The former chief executive for Godfather's Pizza, a national restaurant chain that has but a single franchise in Michigan, repeatedly drew on the distinction that unlike other Republican candidates he's never held high political office, but has 40 years of problem-solving experience in business.
Cain's first exposure to national politics came as president of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. Four women have accused him of sexual harassment during that period, two of whom received cash settlements from the restaurant association.
For Cain, Thursday was day 11 of trying to get beyond sexual harassment accusations. Facing voters for the first time since the allegations emerged, Cain toured Michigan making stops arranged by local tea party activists. He made a single comment in Traverse City directed at the controversy.
"The only reason I'm being attacked is because I'm not part of the political class," he said.
Angela Benko, of Kalkaska, said the allegations caused her to think about her support of Cain, and research the accusations of sexual harassment on the Internet along with Cain's denials.
"It's possible, but the integrity I've seen, I tend to believe him more," she said. "I'm inspired and impressed. He seems very honest and straightforward."
Bob Benko said Cain impressed him because he raised a number of issues that need to be addressed, such as smaller government and the economy.
The biggest crisis is the economy, Cain told the crowd. He proposes to dump the current federal tax system and replace it with a 9 percent flat income tax, a 9 percent sales tax, and a 9 percent business tax.
"You don't need a Ph.D. to understand it, you don't need a politician to explain it," Cain said.
He dismissed critics who said he could never get it adopted by Congress.
"The difference between a politician and a businessman is a politician proposes things he thinks he can get passed," Cain said. "A businessman proposes solutions that will solve the problem."
Ralph McQueen, of Leland, said Cain's tax plan, dubbed 9-9-9, is a "gimmick" to draw attention to the complexity of the current tax code and noted Cain has already tweaked 9-9-9 to address some of its shortcomings.
"We've got to do something, the tax code is outrageous," McQueen said.