The most intriguing question raised by the first presidential debate in Greenville, S.C. involves the way Republicans will characterize the surprising showing of Herman Cain. Does the business leader and talk radio host represent the next Ronald Reagan --or the second coming of Alan Keyes?
Cain’s fans and supporters cite the reaction to Thursday night’s encounter to stress the Reaganesque qualities of their champion. According to a focus group conducted by Fox News analyst Frank Luntz, Cain gained more support from his self-assured and capable performance than any other candidate in the 35 debates the pollster has covered. Among 29 participants, only one favored Cain prior to the telecast; afterwards, a clear majority selected him as their “first choice” among presidential possibilities. (Most of the heavyweights ducked the debate.)
Like Reagan, Cain combines genial temperament, folksy style and a relaxed and effortless comfort before the camera to reassure those who worry about his lack of government experience. His dismissive response to the emphasis on a substantive political track record (“How’s that workin’ out for you?”) drew one of the evening’s most positive responses. When Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966 he billed himself as “the citizen candidate”; Cain can also promote himself as part of the solution, while professional politicos are part of the problem.
Skeptics insist that Reagan boasted important advantages Cain can never match: even before that first race, the Gipper had become a popular household name through his long career in Hollywood. By the time Reagan ran for president, he could point to two successful terms as chief executive of the Golden State, during which he acquired considerable political savvy and, even more importantly, a gifted, world-class staff—many of whom followed him to the White House. Cain’s campaign remains disorganized and rudimentary, inspired by a forlorn belief that ground troops will rally magically to the cause as soon as they’ve been exposed to the candidate’s incandescent eloquence.