Herman Cain is becoming a serious contender on the national stage. Winning the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll in Orlando catapults him to the front of the pack. Through feisty debate performances and a compelling personal narrative, the businessman no one in Washington had heard of a short time ago has made himself into a real factor in the Republican primaries. Once thought to be running for a Cabinet seat, Mr. Cain is now talked about as an asset as a running mate on the national ticket, if not as the actual standard-bearer. The reality is elephants can't decide who they want to lead the herd. In the long run, this indecision helps Mitt Romney the most.
The early months of the Republican contest have been a game of musical chairs. Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, entered as the frontrunner with some in the capital imagining an insurgent uprising by former Speaker Newt Gingrich or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Then undeclared former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin teased everybody and jumped to the top of the pack before Mr. Romney reclaimed the lead, after which Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll, knocking out fellow North Star stater Tim Pawlenty, who told enough people he had a shot that some believed him. Mrs. Bachmann's star fell south when Texas Gov. Rick Perry threw his cowboy hat into the ring and lassoed her Tea Party support. Following a couple of poor debate performances, Mr. Perry has watched conservatives migrate over to Mr. Cain, as speculation continues about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Mrs. Palin deciding to run and upsetting the lineup even more.
That there is no clear frontrunner exposes the worrisome fact that the GOP is having a difficult time unifying behind one strong candidate. The 2012 election offers the best opportunity for a landslide takeover of the White House and Congress that could bring about substantive systemic change to continue the conservative counterrevolution launched by President Reagan in 1980 and furthered by the Republican tide led by Mr. Gingrich in 1994. The American public is desperate for another Reagan to lead the nation out of the Obama desert but don't believe any of the current crop of candidates fit the bill yet. This might change as the campaign drags on and someone steps up to the challenge. In the meantime, Republican division gives President Obama reason to hope he may be able to eke out a second term even though nobody likes him. In 1996, nobody liked President Clinton either, but he was re-elected because the GOP nominated Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who everyone knew was a loser.
The other main beneficiary of Republican fence-straddling is Mr. Romney. Month after month, debate after debate, he comes off as the most prepared and articulate candidate in the field. Although he takes his fair share of arrows for being more moderate than the party base, Mr. Romney enjoys a distinct advantage as the de-facto establishment pick: He doesn't have to scrape and claw for support. Every new flavor of the week has a shot at winning the important Tea Party backing, but that means competition is brutal for the nod from the more ideologically driven faction. Mr. Romney's core support within the party allows him to sit back and let the rest of the pack chew each other up for what's left. This puts him above the fray and helps him look presidential. It also means he can concentrate his fire on Mr. Obama rather than his fellow Republicans.
There is risk in playing it safe in a game of helter-skelter. Many conservatives don't trust Mr. Romney, so he needs to take some chances and stake out a few bold red-meat positions to put the heart of his party at ease. When the music stops, it's still Mitt's race to lose.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the forthcoming book “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, November 2011).
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