At this point in the republican presidential campaign, the official script calls for a head-to-head matchup between the two candidates with broad support among the party's elite thinkers and fundraisers: Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. But sometimes the voters throw out the script. And so, at an Oct. 11 debate in New Hampshire, the star was neither of the two Establishment favorites. It was a former pizza mogul who's never held elected office and who until recently was a punch line for political insiders.
And so now the joke is on the Establishment. Surging in the polls nationally and in key primary states, and lifting voters from their seats with his rousing, sermon-style oratory, Herman Cain is roiling the 2012 presidential race. In New Hampshire, the main topic of conversation wasn't about Romney's economic plan or Perry's Texas record. It was Cain's catchy--some say gimmicky--"9-9-9" tax-reform plan, which would replace the tax code with a 9% flat tax on business and personal income, plus a national sales tax. "Therein lies the difference between me, the nonpolitician, and all of the politicians," Cain said. "They want to pass what they think they can get passed rather than what we need, which is a bold solution. 9-9-9 is bold, and the American people want a bold solution."
Conservative activists seem to want boldness, but they aren't finding it in either Romney or Perry. So they have turned to the latest candidate offering the promise of a dramatic break from politics as usual. "He's not a politician," says Wayne Sommers of Greenwood, Del., after seeing Cain electrify a crowd of conservatives at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington this month. "He's real."
Maybe too real to win. Cain, 65, lacks campaign funds, a seasoned campaign team and the support of key party leaders. Some of his aides have quit, saying he is not a serious candidate. He left the campaign this month for a book tour--some say his driving motivation is publicity--and confesses ignorance about Afghanistan and the names of foreign leaders. Other conservative stars, like Michele Bachmann, have ignited and burned out within weeks. Even so, Cain's rise indicates that Republican voters are not ready to close ranks around the race's so-called front runners, relative moderates in comparison to Cain's in-your-face conservatism.
Cain's rivals are hard pressed to compete, for instance, with the simplicity and superficial appeal of his 9-9-9 plan, even if its details remain highly controversial. Conservative economists applaud the idea, but many others say it dramatically favors the rich, could actually raise taxes on the poor and would require huge spending cuts. Cain also delights social conservatives with his firm views: he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, calls homosexuality a choice and says he would not be comfortable with a Muslim in his Cabinet. (He even delivers sermons at Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta.) Republican pollster David Winston says voters love Cain's bombastic style and have "responded to the way he is offering ideas."