When it comes to Herman Cain’s presidential campaign, even if we put aside every other consideration — his unfamiliarity with current events, his unwillingness to put together a policy agenda, his frequent staff resignations, his lackluster fundraising — it’s still often hard to tell if the guy is actually running for public office.

The New York Times noted the other day, for example, that Cain arranged a “whirlwind trip through New York City” last week, which included some media appearances and power lunches, but Cain “did all but one thing — campaign.” The same piece looked at his public campaign calendar of events and found that “19 of the 31 days of October are blank.”

Occasionally, Cain does make public appearances, but Politico reports that he tends to avoid Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — the four early nominating states — where the candidates are campaigning aggressively.

A POLITICO analysis of candidate schedules reveals that Cain has logged less time in the kickoff states and held far fewer town halls and small town meet-and-greets than any of his competitors. In a nomination fight in which the first four states to vote hold a position of exaggerated importance, Cain has taken a different route — a haphazard approach that regularly takes him to places far from the primary and caucus action.

While presidential candidates don’t typically confine themselves to the early state campaign trail, Cain’s peripatetic schedule has nevertheless led to head-scratching…. The lack of focus on any of the key early states is at the heart of questions about just how serious Cain is about winning the GOP nomination.

“People are confused by it. They want to see the candidates and ask them questions. Some people haven’t met him for the first time yet,” Chuck Laudner, a former Iowa GOP executive director, told Politico. “There’s a lot of anxiety here when someone’s riding high in the polls and doesn’t want to take advantage of it. It’d be very easy to do.”

That’s an important point. Cain, thanks to a variety of factors, is actually doing very well in early nominating states, despite the fact that he’s not even trying. If he actually started showing up in places like Iowa and South Carolina, Cain would presumably solidify his position as an inexplicably top-tier candidate.

But he doesn’t bother. Cain hasn’t stepped foot in Iowa in over two months, and he spends even less time in New Hampshire, where polls show him running a credible second.

What’s he thinking? Cain’s spokesperson said this is all part of a larger strategy — one that only seems to make sense to the candidate and his immediate aides — though I suspect the truth is more mundane. First, it’s likely Cain knows a lot of retail politics would expose him as a fraud — in debates, he can recite a few soundbites in 30-second answers and do just fine. At a town-hall event in Ames, it’d be pretty clear this guy has no idea what he’s talking about.

And second, I imagine Cain doesn’t actually have presidential ambitions. His campaign is a vanity exercise, intended to help him sell books and line up a post-2012 media career.

For what it’s worth, if this is Cain’s plan, it seems to be working fairly well. He won’t be the Republican presidential nominee, but by 2013, he’ll be charging a fortune on the lecture circuit, and very likely have his own Fox News show.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.