ATLANTA -- The wheel of fortune has landed on Herman Cain’s number, putting him at the top of the Republican primary race, prompting pundits and political junkies to question whether it will keep spinning around to another candidate.
In a contest that has seen the wheel favor Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, it’s understandable to expect Cain to lose favor as easily as he gained it. However, some factors may encourage the wheel to stop on his number, at least for a while.
Georgia Republicans who remember Cain’s 2004 primary campaign for the U.S. Senate seat that Johnny Isakson ultimately won, recognize the public-speaking skills and personal charm he exhibited then. They also see the growth in a candidate who is both better organized and better informed on the issues.
He has already participated in more nationally televised debates than most presidential nominees of the 20th Century and has yet to suffer the kinds of gaffs in them that deflated Perry’s support. Instead, Cain has been the darling of several debates, helping him to gain recognition and break from the pack.
This steady stream of debates is one of the factors going for him. Where past campaigns have required huge sums for paid media to establish name identification and positioning, not to mention message delivery, this year’s endless cable-television debates are doing it for free.
That confounds the evaluation most pundits use in determining the viability of candidates, organizational strength and fundraising potential. That computation makes Mitt Romney, last cycle’s runner-up, the most viable Republican this year in the eyes of those prognosticators.
The unusual number of debates -- at which Cain excels -- makes money slightly less important this cycle.
Organizationally, Cain has assets that don’t show up in the typical campaign ledgers. His early support from the tea party movement gives him grassroots muscle that’s less evident to political observers as does his four years in Iowa in the food business in a region where the pizza chain he ran is popular. Every ad for Godfather’s Pizza is an ad for him he doesn’t have to pay for.
Plus, this year’s chaotic primary schedule where states are still jockeying dates could nullify the organizational firepower of any candidate who guesses wrong about the order in which the voting eventually falls.
Beyond campaign tactics, consider Cain’s positioning when paired with Romney. One is the son of a CEO turned governor; the other a maid and a chauffeur. One became a rich financier who bought and sold companies; the other worked his way up to the head of a pizza chain, the quintessential blue-collar meal. One has a jobs plan with so many points -- 59 -- that no voter can recall them all; the other has a 9-9-9 strategy that fits on a bumper sticker.
Pair him with Barack Obama.
One is the incumbent in an anti-incumbent year; the other has never held any elective office. When jobs remain the No. 1 issue, one yielded marginal success spending taxpayer money on “stimulus”; the other had a career as an private employer.
“Politicians put together things that will pass. Businessmen put together plans that solve the problems,” Cain said.
To continue the comparison with Obama, one comes across as always cool yet dependent on a teleprompter; the other is a passionate orator who’ll often break into song as quickly as he flings one-liners.
And both are black.
Plenty of Republicans said privately in 2008 that they were eager to break the color barrier at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. but only for the right candidate. Many urged Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to be it. Now, Cain could give them their chance.
A black nominee gives the GOP an avenue to attract conservative blacks who were torn four years earlier between loyalty to their race and adherence to their political philosophy. It could help the party shed its whites-only image with other minorities, too, especially since Cain is strongest in the states of the former Confederacy.
The more the national media include phrases like, “no one expects him to be the eventual nominee,” the more he garners attention from frustrated voters in other parts of the country. The same frustration that’s fueling the tea party and Occupy Wall Street is simmering with voters everywhere, even if they don’t subscribe to the philosophies of those two groups. As they search for an outsider to shake up the status quo, such media appellations as “long shot” actually work to Cain’s benefit by positioning him as more of an outsider than any other Republican running.
Obviously, Cain can falter as easily as the other candidates have who were also once atop the wheel of fortune. The other candidates could also do something to boost their own luck, such as Perry’s jobs plan to be unveiled soon.
But Cain, who may have entered the race on a lark after so many callers to his radio talk show urged him to, has enough going for him that he could have more staying power than the average flavor of the month.