Atlanta talk-show host and businessman Herman Cain stole the show in the GOP debate in Greenville, S.C., Thursday, and may have vaulted himself into the front tier of Republican candidates according to several pundits and observers.
“If you want the real headline today it would say, ‘A star is born,’” Matt Towery, the conservative syndicated columnist and CEO of the nonpartisan InsiderAdvantage polling firm, told Newsmax Friday.
Cain, he said, could be the come-from-behind candidate this season, like others have done in the past, including former President Jimmy Carter, a relative unknown who won his party’s nomination anyway.
Towery’s evaluation seemed to mirror that of Fox News contributor and pollster Frank Luntz, who said a focus group’s reaction to Cain’s articulation of conservative principles was “unprecedented.”
Only one of the 29-member focus group initially was a Cain supporter. By evening’s end, however, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, who also served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, had won an overwhelming majority among those on Luntz’s focus group.
“I have never had this kind of reaction until tonight,” said Luntz. “Something very special happened this evening.”
University of Virginia Center for Politics Director Dr. Larry J. Sabato cautioned, however, that focus groups aren’t representative of the larger electorate.
“Cain’s performance was fine, but most of the others did reasonably well, too,” Sabato tells Newsmax. “A debate cannot change the fundamentals. Most of the people on that stage were exotic, boutique candidates. Their chances of being elected president are almost nil.”
Other Republicans competing in the Fox News debate telecast were former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
Each candidate had his moments during the debate. Pawlenty was generally credited with coming across as the most polished on stage. Paul roused the crowd with libertarian positions on the prohibition of drugs and U.S. military interventions abroad.
But some in the crowd expressed disappointment that none of the so-called “first tier” of GOP candidates – including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -– participated in Thursday’s debate.
“Herman Cain's success points out the weakness of the field that showed up in Greenville, SC,” Democratic pollster Doug Schoen told Newsmax. “He offered no-nonsense, straight talk. But no candidate offered a clear narrative on the economy, as Sen. Jim DeMint correctly said the Republicans need to do.”
Cain spoke repeatedly during the debate about the importance of a strong energy policy and job creation. His high point came in response to a question about his lack of governing experience.
“I’m proud I haven’t held public office before,” he said. “Most [of the candidates], they have held public office before. How’s that working out for you?” he asked to applause.
The mainstream media took notice of Cain as well. CBS News called his performance “the big surprise of the night.”
Rasmussen Reports President Scott Rasmussen said it’s too early to say whether the debate can make Cain a major player in the fight for the 2012 nomination, saying the debate was “like the first game of spring training in the baseball season.” But he said there is a “very good chance” this year’s nominee will not come from the current presumed frontrunners.
“Four years ago at this time, nobody knew who Mike Huckabee was … he was not a national name. He came from nowhere, did very well in the Iowa State Fair, surprised all the pundits with his performance in the straw poll there, and obviously went on not only to do well in the Iowa caucus, but to get more delegates than anyone but John McCain,” Rasmussen said.
Cain, a Georgia businessman and talk-show host, earned a Master’s Degree while serving in the U.S. Navy. In addition to his stint at Godfather’s Pizza, which went from bankruptcy to profitability during his time at the helm, Cain also served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
In addition to answering questions about his lack of governing experience, Cain will also have to reassure primary voters that he can effectively master foreign policy questions. He appeared to stumble Thursday when asked to articulate his policy on the war in Afghanistan, for example, stating he would need to study the matter further.
Towery said that the performances of both Cain and Pawlenty vaulted them into the front tier of GOP candidates for 2012. While conceding Cain lacks experience on how government works, he added GOP primary voters are looking for a candidate who will downsize government, rather than one who can manage its growth.
“I think Herman Cain does do a little bit of what Ronald Reagan did, and that is, he captures the hearts of the Republican conservatives very early on which Reagan did when he challenged Gerald Ford,” Towery said.
He also said the decision by most of the major Republican candidates to stay out of the South Carolina debate was “a really stupid move.”
“You saw a group of younger, fresher faces emerge and really win the heart of the S.C. Republican Party,” Towery said. “I don’t know how those bigger candidates are going to get that back.”
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