Just a few weeks ago, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain was stuck in single -digits in the Republican presidential primary polls. Then, on September 22, Texas governor Rick Perry turned in a disastrous debate performance. He said opponents of his immigration policy don’t “have a heart,” and he badly stumbled over his words at times. Perry faded, and Cain surged. Last week, Cain shot past former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to the top of the polls.
The big question now is whether Cain can consolidate his gains and actually win the nomination. There are reasons to believe that, yes, he can. Cain is the most charismatic candidate in the GOP race. He’s a great speaker and has a good sense of humor. He is ideologically in tune with conservatives, who make up the base of the Republican party. Cain is the only candidate to offer a bold and specific plan to transform the tax code—his 9-9-9 plan, a 9 percent sales tax, 9 percent flat income tax, and a 9 percent business tax. And the polls indicate that his surge may have legs.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Cain leading Romney 27 percent to 23 percent last week, and Cain outperformed Romney among those paying close attention to the race, as NBC’s First Read blog noted. Twenty-three percent of Republicans didn’t know enough about Cain to have an opinion about him, while only 6 percent didn’t know enough about Romney. And to know Herman Cain is to like him. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from early October found that 70 percent of Republicans say the more they get to know about Herman Cain, the more they like him. Only 38 percent say the same about Mitt Romney, and just 29 percent about Rick Perry. In a head-to-head matchup with Romney, Public Policy Polling found Cain leading Romney 48 percent to 36 percent (with all candidates included, Cain was leading Romney 30 percent to 22 percent).
On the other hand, the Republican primary remains very fluid. According to the PPP survey, more than two-thirds of Cain’s supporters said they might end up voting for someone else. For Cain to win, there are five obvious obstacles he’ll have to overcome.
(1) Iowa is a must-win state for Cain, but he isn’t treating it that way. Whoever wins Iowa will likely emerge as the “anti-Romney” favorite, but following his October 4 appearance on The View, Cain told ABC News that he only has to finish in the top three in Iowa. Cain hasn’t been to Iowa for weeks and reportedly has no plans to go there until November 19. His absence hasn’t hurt him just yet—he’s leading Mitt Romney 30 percent to 22 percent in the state, according to the latest PPP poll. But Cain can’t neglect the voters in Iowa for too long before it starts to become an issue.
(2) Cain’s support in 2008 for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, aka the bank bailout, could hurt him. When the issue came up during the October 11 debate at Dartmouth College, Cain said, “I happen to agree with Governor Romney. The way it was administered is where it got off-track.” Many other conservatives in good standing—such as Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin—take the same position. But if Cain stays on top, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann will likely go after him on this issue in future debates and TV ads. “TARP didn’t inspire the Tea Party, runaway spending inspired the Tea Party,” Cain told me in an interview earlier this year. Cain’s hypothesis will be put to the test in the coming months.
(3) Cain’s memorable 9-9-9 tax plan may be a double-edged sword. It’s won him praise from the likes of famed supply-side economist Arthur Laffer. But Bachmann and Perry are focusing on the new 9 percent sales tax to say the plan is really a tax increase. The sales tax is meant to replace taxes Cain would scrap or lower (the income tax), so most people would see a net tax decrease. But the sales tax would appear to increase the tax burden on Americans who pay no income tax, such as the poor, many families who benefit from exemptions and the child tax credit, and seniors living off Social Security. Cain’s response is that the plan will lead to cheaper goods, more jobs, and high growth. That’s a start, but he probably needs to show openness to modifying the plan.
(4) Republicans may like the idea of Cain as CEO of the American economy, but how about as commander in chief? Cain says the Cain doctrine is “peace through strength and clarity.” But it’s not clear he’s spent much time thinking about national security and foreign affairs. During a Fox News Sunday appearance earlier this year, Cain didn’t know what the “right of return” meant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cain later said he thinks the issue is for Israel to decide. “When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know,” Cain told the Christian Broadcasting Network last week. Cain has also declined to say what he would do in Afghanistan. “There’s more that I don’t know than I know,” Cain told me in June. “I’m not going to pull a plan out of my ass.” Cain needs to be prepared to speak knowledgeably about foreign policy.
(5) Cain has a long record of making incendiary statements. He called the Democratic presidential candidates “Hezbocrats” in a 2006 Townhall.com column. “The objective of the liberals is to destroy America,” Cain said at a conservative conference in February. “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” Cain told the Wall Street Journal in October when asked about the Occupy Wall Street protests. During an interview with Glenn Beck in June, Cain said he’d require Muslims to “prove” they’re faithful to the Constitution to serve in his administration, but would not do the same for Catholics or Mormons. Cain held an event in July at a mosque and issued a statement apologizing to American Muslims. “I am truly sorry for any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it,” he said.
Cain’s red-meat rhetoric may have served him well as a talk radio host, but it is unpresidential. During the 11 long weeks until the Iowa caucuses, the challenge for Cain will be to avoid the rhetorical missteps that could send his supporters back to Rick Perry or over to Newt Gingrich or even Mitt Romney. Republican voters don’t seem too enamored of Romney. But if polls consistently show Romney beating Obama and Cain losing to Obama, perhaps conservatives will rediscover the Mitt Romney who was endorsed in 2008 by Rush Limbaugh, Senator Jim DeMint, and, yes, Herman Cain.
John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.