When former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain was in the midst of an answer to question during the first Republican primary debate (sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina GOP) of the 2012 cycle in Greenville, South Carolina, the buzzer rang, indicating that Cain had reached his alloted 30 seconds.
Traditional politicians usually ignore the buzzer and finish their talking points or answers. Cain, though, simply stopped his answer, unlike what a traditional politician would do in that situation.
Later in the debate, when pressed by Chris Wallace, who was one of the moderators, about his lack of political experience, Cain simply responded, in what is becoming a patented line of his, that politicians have done more harm than good in Washington and asked the audience, “how’s that working out for you?”
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and former New Mexico Gary Johnson joined Cain on stage in what many political observers called a junior varsity debate. Potential heavyweights such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Jon Huntsman, Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, and Newt Gingrich were all absent.
Cain’s outsider status, his clarity in his responses, and his successful past as a businessman who turned around companies that were failing, resonated with an audience that previously did not know much about him.
In fact, in a focus group by Frank Luntz right after the debate, voters who did not know who Cain was nearly unanimously declared him the winner.
Likewise, that same focus group seemed angry that other potential top-tier candidates ignored South Carolina, a state that has been essential to winning the GOP nomination since 1980. In fact, no GOP candidate has won the nomination without winning South Carolina since 1980.
So by showing up, Pawlenty was the other winner by default. Pawlenty had measured answers on a range of issues, smartly brought up an issue that is currently dear to many in South Carolina–Boeing–especially to Gov. Nikki Haley, and criticized Obama on healthcare while also admitting his past mistakes on climate change and cap and trade.
Gary Johnson floundered and was awkward at best and Ron Paul seemed to be finding his footing. Paul seems like an aging wrestler in his last hurrah, and it is to be determined whether he is hanging around well past his shelf-life or if he can be triumphant. Paul still has a fervent group of supporters who raised nearly a million dollars yesterday during an online “money bomb.”
Santorum urged debate watchers to pick a candidate who has lived and fought for social values instead of merely “checking off the boxes.” He said that if Republicans give up on social issues, it would be giving up on America, and he strongly supported the importance of learning English to succeed in this country.
But Pawlenty and Cain rightfully grabbed the night’s headlines.
While Pawlenty seemed to say all the right things, the support for Cain represents both a general dissatisfaction among the GOP primary electorate with the current crop of mainstream candidates and an affirmation of his straight talking, outsider status, something that this cycle’s primary voters will value, as evidenced by the high poll numbers of Donald Trump in recent weeks.
The debate seemed to be a preseason matchup weeks or months before the real campaign season kicks off, but Cain’s showing showed that this cycle is going to be an anti-establishment cycle where clarity and fierceness may be valued above a candidate who merely does his or her best to check off all the requisite boxes.
Candidates who were not at the debate should take note.