Herman Cain shines, but he’s still a longshot

at 11:34 AM ET, 05/06/2011

For months, political strategists have known Herman Cain is a great public speaker. Last night he proved that he’s not bad at debating, either. Fox News’ South Carolina debate likely introduced the radio talk show host and former pizza chain CEO to a whole new audience. His performance won over Republican pollster Frank Luntz’s post-debate focus group. “Something very special happened this evening,” said Luntz amid rave reviews for Cain from the group.

Even before last night, Cain was popular with conservatives who remember him from the 1990s as an advocate against President Clinton’s health-care reform. He performed well against Clinton himself in a 1994 town hall meeting. He’s a business owner who turned around a failing franchise, Godfather’s Pizza, the kind of resume that appeals to Republicans now more than ever. His rhetorical style has been fine-tuned by years on the radio in Atlanta.

Cain has been slowly building on that reputation for the past few months, speaking at tea party rallies and conservative events around the country and winning people over with his memorable turns of phrase (for example, from the Conservative Political Action Conference this February: “Stupid people are ruining America.”).

The quick wit and economic acumen that put Cain in the spotlight were both on display last night. When asked why he would challenge former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney after endorsing him in 2008, Cain quipped that “I’m running now because he did not win.” The Democratic National Committee felt compelled to send out a post-debate press release fact-checking Cain’s statement on gas prices.

Still, no matter how bright Cain shone last night, he has little chance of winning the nomination. While he has some personal money, he doesn’t have nearly enough cash to fund his own campaign. And fundraising could be tough for him in such a crowded field with lots of better known candidates running.

He also lost his only other major race — a 2004 primary against now-Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). That kind of electoral record is not likely to inspire much confidence among major donors. (Read our full case against Herman Cain.) While he’s popular with tea party voters, their impact in early states will be diluted by open primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Cain is also still relatively unknown. While this debate undoubtedly helped change that a bit, he probably won’t be as lucky the next time around. On a field of second or third tier candidates, it was easy for Cain to stand out. In a debate with contenders who poll in the double digits, he’s not going to get as much screen time or support.

And while Cain’s strong finish is what focus group members appeared to remember, his performance was far from perfect. He stumbled on foreign policy, saying that when it came to Afghanistan he would rely on “the experts and their advice and their input.” In a debate with more seasoned candidates the gaps in his experience will be more apparent.

Once those names get in, Cain will likely be pushed to the sidelines. For today, however Cain is in the spotlight — and loving it.

 
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