The cable news debates have attracted far larger audiences, probably heavily tilted to actual caucus-goers and primary voters, than debates in previous cycles, and the candidates' performances have had an impact on voters (ask Rick Perry).
Another old rule is that a whiff of scandal sinks a candidacy. But 79 percent of Republicans in this week's ABC/Washington Post poll say that they don't care about the charges against Cain. On talk radio and in the right blogosphere, many dismiss the charges as an unfair attack by liberal media.
Over the past week, Cain has serially violated the old rule that you must respond to scandal charges definitively and consistently. In one of his Fox News appearances, he acknowledged cheerfully that he was "unprepared" for the charges, though his campaign had 10 days' notice of them.
This has astounded conservative bloggers like Commentary's Pete Wehner ("unbelievably amateurish campaign") and The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin ("Cain seems intent on making the controversy worse").
I suspect Rubin is right when she says that Cain's strength in polls last week does not represent voters' final verdict on him. And his inconsistent stands on issues like abortion and ignorance that China already has nuclear weapons may still hurt him.
But Cain's stance as a non-politician who refuses to obey the rules of the great game of politics is at least momentarily a political asset in a year when opinion about conventional politicians of both parties is near an all-time low.
This cycle feels like 1992, when Ross Perot zoomed ahead of George Bush and Bill Clinton in the polls and, despite leaving and re-entering the race in bizarre fashion, won 19 percent of the vote in November.
I'm still inclined to think Cain's support will evaporate sooner or later. But for a moment Friday, the thought occurred to me that I was sitting next to a future president of the United States.
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