IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Herman Cain has cast himself as the outsider, the pizza magnate with real-world experience who will bring fresh ideas to the nation's capital. But the Republican presidential hopeful's economic ideas, support and organization have close ties to two billionaire brothers who bankroll right-leaning causes through their group, Americans for Prosperity.
Cain's campaign manager and a number of aides have worked for Americans for Prosperity, or AFP, the advocacy group founded with support from Charles and David Koch, which lobbies for lower taxes and less government regulation and spending. Cain credits a businessman who served on an AFP advisory board with helping devise his "9-9-9" plan to rewrite the nation's tax code.
And his years of speaking at AFP events have given the businessman and radio host a network of loyal grassroots fans.
The once little-known businessman's political activities are getting fresh scrutiny these days since he soared to the top of some national polls.
His links to the Koch brothers could undercut his outsider, nonpolitical image among people who detest politics as usual and candidates connected with the party machine.
AFP tapped Cain as the public face of its "Prosperity Expansion Project," and he traveled the country in 2005 and 2006, speaking to activists starting state-based AFP chapters from Wisconsin to Virginia. Through that work he met Mark Block, a Wisconsin Republican operative hired to lead that state's AFP chapter in 2005 as he rebounded from a campaign scandal.
Block and Cain sometimes traveled together as they built up AFP: Cain was the charismatic speaker preaching the ills of big government; Block helped with handling nuts and bolts.
Cain became a draw at growing AFP-backed rallies, impressing tea party activists with a mix of humor and hard-hitting rhetoric against President Barack Obama's policies.
Block is now Cain's campaign manager.
Cain has credited Rich Lowrie, a Cleveland businessman, with being a key economic adviser and helping to develop his plan to cut the corporate tax rate to 9 percent, impose a national sales tax of 9 percent and set a flat income tax rate of 9 percent.
"He's got a national network now that perhaps he wouldn't have had 15 or 20 years ago because of his work with AFP," said Wisconsin Republican Vice Chairman Brian Schimming.