Herman Cain Can't Save the GOP

The Pizza Man might not be president -- but can he deliver black voters to the Republican Party?

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The day after Herman Cain won the GOP's first 2012 presidential debate, I recapped it thusly: "Just minutes after the debate ended, an on-air focus group run by Fox News pollster Frank Luntz declared, almost unanimously, that Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, was the debate's winner. Their reaction: 'He's a problem solver.' "

It made sense. He's not a household name, but talk radio devotees know Cain from his own show and his regular guest spots subbing for conservative talk luminaries like Neal Boortz and Sean Hannity.

But I was brought back to reality when my wife, a no-nonsense focus group of one, made her blunt assessment of Cain -- "He won't be the nominee" -- and then quickly dismissed my analysis with a Beverly Hills Cop flourish, adding, "You just fell for the banana in the tailpipe."

Her take? The focus group's on-the-spot endorsement had less to do with Cain than with the subpar showing of the other candidates. Cain's edge, as New York Times polling guru Nate Silver writes, is that "in a field where the three insider favorites to win the race -- Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman -- collectively poll at just 25 percent, and where some Republicans seem to be pining for an outsider (perhaps even outside-the-box) choice, he's the freshest face."

After getting 10 percent in last week's CNN/Opinion Research poll, 15 percent in this week's Public Policy Polling poll and a respectable 8 percent in last week's Gallup poll, boosted by a high "positive intensity" score among all the contenders, Cain -- the only African American in the GOP field -- is getting noticed by the national media.

Noticed, but not taken completely seriously. Most coverage describes Cain as a popular long shot, adding -- ahem -- color to an otherwise drab field. To his credit, Cain looks as if he's running to win, and not to be the latest Alan Keyes-esque protest candidate. His talk-radio style, corporate success and lack of officeholding experience give him an appealing Tea Party résumé.

Cain's pitch, though, is a lot like the other contenders. He's pretty much against whatever Obama is for.

Which underscores a Cain dilemma. When he tells crowds, "I left that Democrat plantation a long time ago -- and I ain't going back," he's signaling that he's not in the race to be the token African American. But as a black candidate, it'd be useful if his presence in the field did more to expand the GOP base. Cain supports the Fair Tax -- a popular proposal to replace income taxes with a flat, value-added tax -- but otherwise, he's hard to distinguish from the other candidates. On policy, he's not offering much that encourages black, Latino or other typically Democratic-leaning constituencies to take a second look under the GOP's tent flap. Here's why:

There's Already a Black Conservative in the Race

It might sound crazy to Republican primary voters desperate to oust the current president, but there's already a black conservative in the 2012 race -- and his name is Barack Obama. As I wrote last year, Obama -- who doubled down in Afghanistan, extended the Bush tax cuts and bailed out the auto industry -- governs like a "Rockefeller Republican." He's a Democrat, but that "says less about him than it does about the odds that in the last half century, a black multimillionaire with a young family would seek (or find) a political home in the GOP."