Herman Cain, the beguilingly personable pizza mogul and Tea Party sweetheart who is showing well in the so-far uncompelling Republican presidential nomination campaign, threw a flag early in an interview I conducted with him last week. I had made the dire mistake of referring to him as African-American.

“I am an American. Black. Conservative,” he said, punctuating each aspect of his self-identity. “I don’t use African-American, because I’m American, I’m black and I’m conservative. I don’t like people trying to label me. African-American is socially acceptable for some people, but I am not some people.”

What is it about the word “African” that the candidate doesn’t particularly appreciate?

“Most of the ancestors that I can trace were born here in the United States of America,” he said, hitting those last four words with a hammer. “And then it goes back to slavery. And I’m sure my ancestors go all the way back to Africa, but I feel more of an affinity for America than I do for Africa. I’m a black man in America.”

This statement came shortly before our discussion turned to another politician generally understood to be an African-American.

Barack Obama is more of an international,” Cain said. “I think he’s out of the mainstream and always has been. Look, he was raised in Kenya, his mother was white from Kansas and her family had an influence on him, it’s true, but his dad was Kenyan, and when he was going to school he got a lot of fellowships, scholarships, he stayed in the academic environment for a long time. He spent most of his career as an intellectual.”

Indonesia, Kenya, Whatever

I left unasked the question of whether it’s more disreputable to be Kenyan or to be an intellectual (and let us pity those suffering Kenyan intellectuals). But I suggested to Cain that while Obama had, in fact, spent four years of his youth abroad, it was in Indonesia, not Kenya. To which Cain, who has dallied with the fading phenomenon known as “birtherism,” responded, “Yeah, Indonesia.”

Cain wants to be taken seriously in this race. He has said some very unserious things -- his proposal to build a moat between the U.S. and Mexico and fill it with alligators comes to mind -- but his resume is not that of a mere curiosity candidate. He has been a corporate CEO, a chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City and president of the National Restaurant Association. He has created jobs in the private sector. He is affable, charismatic and funny, qualities not found in abundance in the current field of candidates.

The Non-Obama

But it is apparent that his popularity, especially among conservatives aligned with the Tea Party, can be traced in large part to his status as the black guy who is not Obama, the Georgia Baptist with the American name. Cain overtly plays this role in front of conservative audiences, offering them public absolution for a sin they don’t believe is a sin: believing that the president is somehow alien to the U.S. and its way of life.

At a convention of the Conservative Political Action Committee in February, Cain told an enthusiastic audience: “They call me racist too, because I disagree with a president who happens to be black.” To cheers, he went on, “You will get called racist simply because you happen to disagree with a president who happens to be black. You are not racists! You are patriots because you are willing to stand up for what you believe in!”

Tea-Party Cool

I explored this theme with Cain when we met. “I’ve been speaking to the Tea Party before it was cool,” he told me. “These people aren’t going to go back to sleep. This sleeping giant is staying awake. The only tactic liberals have is to try to intimidate people into thinking that the Tea Party is racist. The Tea Party is not a racist movement, period! If it were, why would the straw polls keep showing that the black guy is winning? That’s a rhetorical question. Let me state it: The black guy keeps winning.”

He went on, “This isn’t why I’m running, but my candidacy would take race off the table. Right now, every time someone criticizes Barack Obama, they try to play the race card, the White House, all his supporters, they try to play the race card.”

Like who?

“I can’t think of a particular individual right offhand,” he answered. “But you see a lot of that implied.” Then he came up with a name: David Gregory, the “Meet the Press” moderator. He was referring to Gregory’s questioning of Newt Gingrich, who had, in a speech before the Georgia Republican Party, referred to President Obama as a “food-stamp” president.

Not About Race

“For David Gregory to sit there and say, ‘Speaker Gingrich, was that a coded racist statement?’ just shows you how deep they dig to turn this into race. What the hell was he talking about?”

I suggested to him that Gingrich’s turn of phrase was a quality example of a racial dog whistle, though it was not as elegantly rendered as Ronald Reagan’s infamous reference to a “strapping young buck” who used his food stamps to buy a “T-bone steak.” (Gingrich, in the midst of a strange and dreadful campaign, has been running something of a dog-whistle seminar, stating that President Obama is trying to “get the whole country to resemble Detroit,” and arguing to those same Georgia Republicans that next year’s election will be the most important since that of 1860.)

Cain wasn’t buying it: “As a black man, I didn’t see race in that statement whatsoever.”

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.