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Does the GOP Take Surging Cain Seriously?

Does the GOP Take Surging Cain Seriously?

By Erin McPike - October 6, 2011


Within a few weeks of Rick Perry's entry into the presidential race, the media seized on the narrative that the contest for the GOP nomination had rapidly narrowed to a two-man race, an alpha-male duel between the Texas governor and Mitt Romney. But conservative voters are having none of it.

And so, a month later, a once little-known business-turnaround artist has surged into the lead in several state polls and one national poll. His name is Herman Cain, a Georgia native who has never held elective office. As such, he’s not a politician by training, and he readily admits to not having a position on the future of the war in Afghanistan. Is it possible that someone with that pedigree actually can become commander in chief -- or even get his party’s nomination?

To hear Washington tell it, the answer is “No way in Hell.”

For one thing, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Clarence Page plugged Cain’s rise in the polls on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown” because, he said, that was the closest Cain would ever get to becoming president.

Political strategists say with near uniformity that the reason for Cain’s surge is that the Republican electorate is simply not ready to commit to any of the front-runners.

Doug Gross, among the most prominent names in Iowa GOP politics and the state’s 2008 chairman for Romney’s presidential outfit, said that Cain is “the current ‘none of the above’ candidate.”

And Rob Collins, a respected inside-the-Beltway Republican strategist -- who had been tapped to manage Haley Barbour’s aborted presidential bid this year -- said Cain’s showing in the polls is nothing more than a “protest vote.”

He explained that Cain’s standing is “the base saying ‘Perry, until you get your act together, we are with Herman.’ ”

Even Perry supporters say privately that they believe this is the case.

As an indication that the other campaigns have not taken Cain seriously, note that none has gone after him on just about anything. And consider that when asked in a debate last month to name a preferred running mate from the field of current Republican presidential candidates, Jon Huntsman went with Cain -- but later his campaign manager, Matt David, issued a statement suggesting the campaign really doesn’t think Cain could be president:

"There are only three plausible nominees for the Republican Party, and tonight's debate made it abundantly clear that of that group, Governor Huntsman alone possesses the foreign policy credentials, successful executive experience, vision and substantive solutions required to lead our nation.” The other two plausible nominees David was referring to were Perry and Romney.

Need more? One national conservative strategist described the trajectory of the race thus far as “perfect for Mitt Romney” in that “Michele Bachmann is not going to happen. Perry is hurting. This Cain thing is perfect because it’s eating at Perry, but anyone with half a brain knows that Cain is not going to get the nomination of our party.”

And now, he added, “Perry has to go after Cain, who’s just a lovable tea party guy.”

Another political operative in Washington who quietly backs Perry said of Cain: “He's said some crazy stuff. Once they dig and hit him, he'll crash.”

That, though, is exactly what the establishment said about Rand Paul in his primary battle against Trey Grayson for the Republican Senate nomination last year in Kentucky. And Paul today is a member of the nation’s most exclusive club.

And on Wednesday, the influential Club for Growth, a key player in getting conservative candidates elected in GOP primaries last year, issued a statement urging activists to take Cain seriously.

“A clear message promoting economic growth, like the one Herman Cain is presenting, is essential to defeating Obama. Republican primary voters ought to give Herman Cain a close look. We are,” said Club President Chris Chocola.

Club spokesman Barney Keller added, “His 9/9/9 [tax] plan is bold, intriguing and appears strongly pro-growth -- we look forward to reviewing it in more detail in the future. Any candidate that clearly articulates the pro-growth message should be taken seriously, and I think that’s why you’re seeing his surge in the polls.” 

Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger even brought up Cain’s business experience as compared to Romney’s (which he promotes regularly), writing that, “measured by résumés, Herman Cain's looks deeper in terms of working on the private sector's front lines.”

There’s just one problem: Cain may have turned around businesses, but he has yet to turn around his own presidential campaign. He has shed staff and has little infrastructure, which is why political operatives don’t take him very seriously. But if a non-traditional campaign is to succeed, maybe his is the one that could catch the Tea Party’s fire. 

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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