Raise your hand if you think Herman Cain won Fox News Channel’s debate last week among contenders for the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination?
Frank Luntz, the bestselling author and GOP pollster, held an instant focus group after the debate which overwhelmingly declared the Cain the winner. "In all the years I have been doing this, I have never seen a reaction like this to a debate.” Luntz exclaimed. “Something very special happened here tonight.”
Traffic and contributions to Cain’s website have increased sharply in the days since the debate. The conservative media, particularly the blogosphere, were praising the 65-year-old talk radio host from Georgia all weekend. On Friday, the date after the debate, he won a presidential straw poll at a Washington state GOP convention and drew a crowd of several hundred people in Las Vegas.
As one of the moderators for that debate, I am very surprised at the rave reviews for Cain – both in the media and in Greenville that night.
I first realized that Cain was the winner when my colleague Shannon Bream and I were discussing on stage the question of which candidate did best at the debate. She said her dad texted her at the end of the debate – while she was still on stage -- to tell her that Herman Cain won. That prompted me to conduct my own informal, post-debate survey of people in the auditorium and back at the hotel. When I asked them who won the debate, almost every one responded ‘Herman Cain.’
Herman Cain? When he was asked about what to do in Afghanistan he had no answer other than to set a priority, get good people around him to study the problem and act decisively. That was his answer to almost every tough question and to my mind it amounted to a non-answer.
But obviously I am missing something.
I have always been impressed by Cain as a man with a wonderful personal story of cancer survival and a black man who made his way in American business despite high levels of racial bias when he was in the middle of his career in the 1980s.
He is best known as the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza where he is credited with saving the pizza chain from bankruptcy in the 1990s and making it profitable. Cain has extensive experience in the corporate world and even served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.
He has recently mastered the one-liners and fiery talk of conservative talk radio but Cain also holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in computer science.
Cain made his debut on the national political stage back in 1994 when he challenged President Clinton on his health care reform package during a televised town hall. The video of the exchange is readily available on YouTube. Cain claimed that Clinton’s health care proposal would cause businesses like his to fire their employees go in order to offset the cost of an insurance mandate for employers.
When Clinton defended his proposal, Cain confidentially responded "Quite honestly, your calculation is inaccurate…In the competitive marketplace it simply doesn't work that way.” His schooling of the president made him a conservative celebrity.
While he has charisma and an impressive business resume, he has never held elected office before. When my pal, Chris Wallace, asked him about that at the debate, he had one of the evening’s most memorable answers:
“I’m proud of the fact that I haven’t held public office before. Most of the people that are in elected office in Washington DC, they have held public office before. How’s that workin’ for you? We have a mess. How about sending a problem-solver to the White House?”
Maybe I was too close to last week’s Republican presidential primary debate to offer an objective assessment. His one-liners were good but I did not feel that he demonstrated any facility with discussion of serious topics like foreign affairs.
Dave Funk, a prominent Republican Party official in Iowa, was quoted in a Wall Street Journal profile of Cain expressing a similar impression. "Herman is a great speaker and makes a great first impression," he noted. "But what I don't see yet is a great deal of depth on things like Afghanistan and national defense."
But among conservative activists and Tea Party groups across the nation, the people who know him best, Cain is known and respected for his thinking as much for his fiery, impassioned speeches at rallies and conferences. So it is a mistake to underestimate Cain. He could be the story of this election cycle.
It is still a long way to the nomination. But Herman Cain is now a player. And this year’s GOP nomination is still being baked. The question now is will the former pizza mogul be able to deliver?
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book is "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It."