Herman Cain's upset victory in the GOP's Florida presidential straw poll shocked political pundits and party activists alike. It's too early to tell if this was a one-time fluke or the start of an astonishing political story. What's clear is this political earthquake was a wake-up call for Republicans and could be the most important result of the entire primary season.
Mr. Cain has impressive business credentials. He has an master's degree in computer science from Purdue University and worked in ballistics with the Department of the Navy. He's the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, which he helped turn into a successful business enterprise, and a former vice president at Pillsbury Co. He also served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
When it comes to politics, Mr. Cain's experience is limited. He first came on the national scene in 1994, challenging President Bill Clinton during a town-hall meeting. Mr. Cain was CEO of the National Restaurant Association at the time, and took an impressive stance against Mr. Clinton's foolish health care plan. He caught the notice of Jack Kemp, who asked him to join a congressional study group, the Economic Growth and Tax Reform Commission, and he, in turn, caught the political bug. He was a senior economic adviser for the 1996 Dole-Kemp presidential campaign, briefly ran for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination and finished second in the 2004 Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia.
That's why Mr. Cain has been widely viewed as a respectable candidate and a likely also-ran because of political inexperience - until last Saturday, when a Florida poll that has correctly predicted every successful GOP presidential nominee gave him the nod.
What happened? In my view, there were three things that worked to Mr. Cain's advantage: poor performances by some of the front-runners (especially Rick Perry), a surge in support among Tea Party activists in Florida and his strong campaign performance.
A few days ago, Mr. Perry was cruising to victory in this straw poll. Last Thursday's Fox News/Google GOP debate in Orlando, Fla., unfortunately showed the Texas governor at his worst: indecisive about foreign affairs, weak on immigration, and seemingly unable to handle one-on-one debates against the other candidates. Mr. Perry's brightly shining star suddenly plummeted to a heavily flickering 5-watt bulb, and the state's Republican base started scrambling around for a new front-runner.
Therein lies a problem: Of the current crop of candidates, there aren't many rays of light. Mitt Romney has been solid but unspectacular during the primary season. Rep. Michele Bachmann has exceeded expectations but her comment that the human papillomavirus vaccine leads to "mental retardation" has made her the equivalent of political Kryptonite. Rick Santorum is getting feistier, but his campaign isn't going anywhere. And while Newt Gingrich does well in the debates, his campaign imploded weeks ago and he isn't seen as a real threat.
Hence, many GOPers must have decided to - if you'll pardon the pun - "raise Cain" last Saturday. In particular, Tea Party activists, who are highly influential in this state (remember, they helped elect Sen. Marco Rubio) gravitated toward the businessman's rock-ribbed political and social conservatism. Mr. Cain also did well in the Orlando debate with his novel 9-9-9 economic plan for a flat tax on personal income and sales receipts. It's a catchy, common-sense approach that fits the candidate like a glove and had a Reaganesque quality. It was a brilliant strategy and all the political chips fell perfectly into place.
Do I think the Florida straw poll result is going to signal a Cain nomination in 2012? At this point, I strongly doubt it. Mr. Cain's inexperience is a major drawback and can't be partially or completely written off. But it's clear his political star is on the rise, and some Republicans are now seriously willing to consider his candidacy. Unless another major candidate throws his hat in the ring (such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie), Mr. Cain is definitely in the hunt.
There's one more intriguing aspect to this story. Speculate, if you will, on the possibility of two African-Americans running for president next year. After President Obama's watershed victory in 2008, I don't think anyone would have predicted this so soon thereafter. Could the sitting, liberal president lose to the intelligent, talented, conservative businessman? Considering Mr. Obama's horrid poll numbers and declining popularity, a Cain White House is definitely not out of the realm of possibility.
Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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