If you go by the polls, and the media coverage, Herman Cain is the GOP’s man of the hour.
The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO has surged to second place in a number of polls. He’s tied with Mitt Romney at 21 percent apiece in Virginia, according to a Quinnipiac poll. A new NBC News/Marist poll, released ahead of tonight’s debate in New Hampshire, has Cain polling a distant second to Romney in the Granite State (which is essentially home turf for the former Massachusetts governor), with just 13 percent to Romney’s 44 percent and tying with Texas Congressman Ron Paul; but much closer in Iowa, where he is just three points behind the GOP front-runner, with 20 percent support among Republican voters, to Romney’s 23 percent.
Having officially replaced Rick Perry as the leading Romney alternative, Cain tied with Romney at 17 percent apiece in a recent CBS News national poll. And he places second to Romney in the latest Washington Post/Bloomberg poll (25 percent to 16 percent, but still ahead of Rick Perry at 13 percent.
Throw in his surprise win in the Florida straw poll last month, and his second place finish in the Values Voter Summit straw poll this past weekend (though the organizers have disavowed their own poll, because Paul was the winner) and Cain’s status as a first-tier candidate is hard to deny.
And yet, not everyone takes him entirely seriously.
With the spotlight clearly on him in tonight’s debate, here are five ways Cain can turn that perception problem around, and be seen as more than just a flash in the media pan.
1. Bring on the substance
But if he wants to be more than a cable TV sound bite machine (or an unpaid prep-man for Saturday Night Live sketch writers), Cain needs to grow beyond tea party rhetoric, and explain why non-tricorner hat-wearing Americans should consider him a serious candidate.
On that front, so far, Cain has been a bust. He has demonstrated little knowledge of foreign policy. Not knowing what the Palestinian right of return is and joking about not being able to pronounce Uzbekistan isn’t exactly presidential.
And on the more pressing domestic policy front, where the election will actually be decided, his “9-9-9” plan is becoming something of a punchline among economists, and even among some fellow conservatives, who argue that without a credible plan to repeal the current income tax (which would require a constitutional amendment), Cain’s plan to create three 9 percent flat taxes, including a sales tax that would hit the middle class and the poor hard, including by taxing food, would just add to Americans’ current tax burden.
Meanwhile, Cain is going to have to provide more substantive explanations of his rather unorthodox views on banning mosques, a national photo ID law, and building a moat…with alligators in it… to keep out illegal immigrants.
2. Prepare to be attacked
One of the reasons Cain has been able to rise so rapidly (he literally tripled his numbers in that Quinnipiac poll versus September, and has had similar surges in the other surveys), is that his candidacy has largely gone uncontested by the other Republican candidates. Asked at an NBC/Politico debate last month which of his fellow contenders he’d want as his running-mate if he were the nominee, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he’d like a combination of former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Cain. Of course, Cain returned the favor by telling the National Journal he’d considering running as the veep for anyone but Perry.
But the camaraderie likely ends tonight. Perry in particular has good reason to attack Cain, who has replaced him as the leading alternative to Romney. With his numbers cratering, and badly in need of a stand-out debate performance, Perry will likely go after both Romney and Cain, which means Cain has to be prepared with a more than just witty asides about delivering pizza. And Cain has elements of his background and rhetoric that are rife for attack from the right, including his brief stint at the Ron Paulite faction-hated Federal Reserve.
Cain is also not immune to attacks if he veers off the approved conservative talking points on the subject of race. Recently, his criticism of Rick Perry’s family ranch drew major fire from the right, and he was forced to walk it back.
3. Get ready for media scrutiny
The closer examination Cain can look forward to won’t just come from his fellow GOPers. The media will now — or should now — begin to treat Cain like any other front-runner, and that means closer scrutiny of his background, ideas and qualifications. Cain can bristle all he wants at questions about his bout with colon cancer or what he was doing during the civil rights movement, for instance, but close questioning comes with the territory. Few people know much about Cain, besides the fact that he ran Pillsbury’s once-beleaguered pizza franchise. That will change — and probably in ways Cain won’t enjoy — if his poll numbers continue to rise.
4. Run for president, not vice president
One of the biggest knocks on Cain is his seeming lack of seriousness about running for president. One reason: Cain’s unorthodox scheduling, which includes leaving the campaign trail to eagerness to be considered as someone’s vice presidential running-mate.
Cain has openly speculated about who he would and wouldn’t run with as number two (again, Perry gets the short end of that stick.) But if he’s going to be considered for number one, it would help to publicly close down that avenue of speculation. Romney may be leading in the polls, but he continues to be an incredibly weak front-runner.
The activist base of the Republican Party isn’t excited about him, and with the Iowa caucuses looming in early January, two-thirds of Republicans still want someone else. Cain ticks the boxes for the farthest right reaches of the Republican base: he’s an evangelical Christian, a tea party favorite, and he articulates the “don’t blame the rich, blame yourselves” ethos of economic conservatism. But if people get the idea that he’d rather be on a book tour than hosting foreign leaders at Camp David, or that he’s really auditioning for the role of sidekick, rather than the lead character, why would anyone bother to raise money for him, volunteer for his campaign, or actually vote for him in a primary?
5. Run a real campaign
it’s notable that for all the free TV exposure Cain is getting, thanks to his rhetoric, he’s not doing much in the way of old fashioned campaigning. Political reporters routinely point to his seeming lack of a real campaign organization or structure, including in key early primary and caucus states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. And Cain’s fundraising has been unspectacular, given his notoriety. And his public calendar typically boasts lots of speeches (and TV appearances) but few fundraisers or real campaign events.
All of that leads to speculation that Cain is more of a Donald Trump — running for fame and fortune and attention — than a serious presidential contender. If he wants to be seen as truly top tier, he’ll need to get off the book tour and get on the campaign trail, start raising real money, and open some campaign offices where it counts.
Otherwise, Cain could wind up being a black version of The Donald, with better hair.