There was this point where it became obvious just how little Rick Perry thought of the electoral chances of Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. During the last debate, Perry was asked which one of the other candidates on the stage he would prefer to be his running mate. Surrounded by several former governors and members of Congress who never had to resign their seats under a cloud, Perry joked that he wished he could “mate up” Cain and Gingrich. It was pretty clear Perry wasn’t expecting either of them to mount any kind of challenge in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Well the latest Fox News poll has Cain in third place only barely behind Romney and Perry and Gingrich is the only other Republican getting double digit support. What gives? Well for one thing, Cain and Gingrich have been careful to stay out of the battle royal that has involved the other candidates on stage. While all the other Republican fight like in one of those cartoons where there is a cloud with a few fists and legs sticking out, Cain and Gingrich have tried to keep their criticisms to Obama, the media and other figures dislike by Republican primary voters. This approach has turned out to have several advantages. First, it can make them appear bigger than the squabbles about HPV or whatever. I remember watching one of the debates with my moderate Republican wife. They asked Gingrich about some other candidate. Gingrich went into his act about “I’m not going to let you divide us with your gotcha questions about our ‘policies’ and ‘records. ‘ This is about us coming together to save our country by transforming . . . ” It went over pretty well with the smarter, better educated, more responsible Spiliakos watching. It would have gone over pretty well with me before I made it an avocation to call bs on Gingrich (when appropriate.)
The second advantage to the Cain/Gingrich approach was that the combination of their low poll ratings and their refusal to go on the attack against the other candidates (Cain had a very mild criticism of Romney - but singled out Romney to be his running mate) meant that the other candidates left them alone. Rick Santorum has been slugging it out with Perry. Santorum has done Perry harm, but Santorum hasn’t seen any of the benefit. Meanwhile, Cain and Gingrich have been selling themselves without a single critical word being spoke about them.
That doesn’t mean Cain and Gingrich don’t have political assets. Gingrich has been slinging conservative narratives for over a generation. He knows policy but his real talent is mouthing buzzwords in a way that masks the costs and limits of his policies and directing attention and resentment at the ideological enemy (Obama, the media, Washington, bureaucrats, whatever.) Cain’s 9-9-9 plan combines simplicity, specificity, boldness and (for the moment) no identified cost to anyone. He has finally found a policy hook for his businessman/populist/outsider/orthodox conservative persona.
So was Perry right about Cain and Gingrich? Yeah (mostly.) You could write a book about all the reasons Gingrich shouldn’t be President. Most people kind of know the reasons, but they haven’t been thrown in anyone’s face lately. If the other candidates decided Gingrich was a threat and went after him with even a fraction of the ferocity that Perry has faced, Gingrich’s support (such as it is) would collapse.
Cain is a bit more formidable. Unlike Gingrich, Cain projects mental stability and Cain’s career seems to back up that impression. He also seems like a good guy. But can you imagine Romney (or Santorum or Bachmann or Perry, or all of them) going after Cain on the middle-class tax increase and/or sticker shock of the FairTax? Do you think it would be hard for Romney to produce a plausible study that the 9-9-9 plan would be tax increase for the middle and working class? There are counterarguments but the waters would be muddies and 9-9-9 wouldn’t sound so good. And then there is what the media scrutiny would do to Cain. Cain is o-2 in talks with Chris Wallace. If Cain’s numbers hold up, he is going to face a lot of scrutiny and a lot of questions about issues he hasn’t spent a lot of time talking about, and people will care about his answers. He hasn’t shown a lot when he has been forced to go off script. I don’t expect him to make the same mistakes (for instance I don’t think he will tell us that he expects Israel to grant the Palestinian right of return), but we are talking about a candidate who lost his only previous campaign and doesn’t seem especially well briefed.
There is a scenario where Cain gets pretty far. He is catching fire right now. If he were surging the week before Iowa, none of my concerns would matter as far as politics went. He would be unstoppable - at least for a while. Right-of-center voters really want to like him. But Iowa is months away and that is a long time for the media attention and the other candidates to bring his numbers back down. He is peaking too early