Herman Cain's Surge in the 2012 Presidential Race

As Perry and Romney slime each other, the former pizza magnate is delivering on style and substance.

The surging support for presidential contender Herman Cain stems in part from his warm, likable personality, his status as an outsider, his record of accomplishment in the world of business, and his bold, upbeat program for reform.

But it also reflects the stupid, petty, mutually destructive nastiness that’s recently afflicted the campaigns of Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, leaving the two frontrunners badly damaged and creating an obvious opening for the Hermanator—or perhaps for someone else.

Some Republican true believers claim to feel energized and encouraged by the new fluidity in the race. But most party elders worry about long-term injury to the GOP brand and needless distraction when the president looks more hapless and vulnerable than ever. Worst of all, by concentrating so much of their attention on Perry’s long-ago decisions on in-state tuition or Romney’s minor changes in his book between the hardcover and paperback editions, the two men only intensify public suspicions that prominent politicians remain hopelessly trapped in their own self-enclosed little universe with scant connection to the pressing problems of ordinary Americans.

Instead of continuing his convincing emphasis on jobs and recovery, Romney has foolishly recalibrated his campaign to concentrate on Perry’s support for tuition breaks to children who graduated from Texas high schools after their parents brought them to this country without legal authorization. A new online video ad uses ominous music to give a mood of foreboding to a clip of former Mexican President Vicente Fox thanking Perry for giving “access to Mexican migrants to universities in Texas,” as if this program—which has benefited more than 20,000 students so far, and has close counterparts in 11 other states—represented some dangerous betrayal.

The most illogical aspect of Romney’s attack involves its irrelevance to any present or potential presidential policy. The occupant of the White House gets to shape innumerable decisions, but he gets no say—none—in determining tuition policies at state universities. When Republicans claim to respect the 10th Amendment, which reserves exclusive powers for the states, and profess their belief in federalism, would Romney make any serious attempt as president to overrule a well-established Texas policy he opposes?

The dispute over in-state tuition is by definition a state issue and not a federal concern. Romney’s focus on that policy amounts to so much distracting demagoguery—drawing attention from Barack Obama’s appalling presidential present to concentrate on Perry’s gubernatorial past.

Unfortunately, Perry responds to these attacks with boneheaded irrelevancies of his own, like describing Romney as “Obama Lite” and thereby ignoring the fact that there isn’t a single major issue on which the former Massachusetts governor stands closer to Obama than he does to Perry himself. Last week Perry told Fox News that Romney “has been on a lot of sides of the same issue. So Mitt needs to get a position and stick with it. He is flipping more than that great movie star Flipper.” This clumsy remark suggests that Perry remembers nothing whatever about “that great movie star” dolphin other than his name and inevitably invites counterattacks, given Perry’s own history as an elected Democrat and one-time campaigner for Al Gore in 1988, not to mention Rudy Giuliani for president just three years ago.

The saddest part of the gotcha game that characterizes the Perry-Romney competition is its abject failure to provide the positive vision and uplifting leadership the American people clearly crave in a moment of crisis. In this context, Herman Cain seemed to offer a refreshing alternative—with his brash “9-9-9 tax plan” or his reassuring emphasis on the “Chilean model” of Social Security reform. Instead of bashing his rivals, Cain has talked about substantive change and soared toward the front of the most recent polls. A Fox News survey from Sept. 25-27 showed a virtual three-way tie for first place, with Romney at 23 percent, Perry at 19 percent, and Cain with a surprising 17 percent support, despite a lack of fundraising success or visible progress in building a campaign organization. (A Washington Post/ABC poll on Tuesday had Cain and Perry tied at 16 to Romney’s 25.)

Unfortunately, Cain compromised his status as the friendly, upbeat, Reaganesque alternative to political backbiting when he needlessly stumbled into the “N-word-head” rock controversy over the weekend. On ABC News he called Perry’s hunting trips to a sprawling ranch “insensitive” because of the derogatory racist nickname attached to part of the family’s ranch. Cain ignored or dismissed insistence from the Perry camp that the governor’s father painted over the offending language on the now-famous rock nearly 30 years ago. Cain compounded his difficulties on CNN, suggesting he couldn’t support Perry as the GOP nominee because of the Texan’s stance on immigration. If the leader of the “Yes, We Cain!” campaign abandons his aura of affability and his emphasis on constructive reform, he’ll lose the very assets that propelled his rapid rise. And if Cain can’t sustain, then what?

Of course, there’s always the possibility of a last-minute entrant into the race like Sarah Palin or perhaps some new, unexpected aspirant to pick up the fallen banner once carried by Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan, who both understood the importance of a laserlike focus on jobs, recovery, and spending, while resisting all temptation to get preoccupied with sideshow issues or personal exposés.

The other long shot with the most momentum in recent polls—contrary to all expert predictions—is Newt Gingrich. He has been quietly building support, especially in Iowa, and stands in a solid fourth place with 11 percent in the Fox poll.

His rise, despite a campaign described as bankrupt and dead in the water by virtually everyone, no doubt relates to his gracious, constructive, above-the-fray, elder statesman role in recent debates, where he pointedly refused to criticize Republican colleagues and instead trained his fire on Obama. In the last week, Gingrich released a new “Contract with America for the 21st Century” bristling with solid and visionary ideas to stimulate growth and promote fiscal responsibility. The vivid contrast between the former speaker’s “big picture” view of the political landscape and the myopic Perry-Romney obsession with minutiae works powerfully to Gingrich’s benefit.

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Does this mean that the Newtster, long ago given up as a fatally neutered candidate, will soon stride into the top tier of presidential contenders? It’s by no means a sure thing but hardly impossible in an unstable, unpredictable nomination race in which none of the contenders has yet effectively answered the public’s palpable yearning for solutions over sloganeering, and for a common-sense candidate who will put aside gamesmanship for the sake of statesmanship.