The main story coming into the Republican presidential debate tonight in Las Vegas is how Herman Cain will do now that he’s seen as a contender rather than a curiosity. With polls showing the former pizza executive battling Mitt Romney for the lead, he can expect the close scrutiny that sunk other candidates when they had their moments in the spotlight. Up until now some of his gaffes — especially those that betrayed his almost complete ignorance of foreign policy issues — didn’t get that much attention simply because not many people took his candidacy seriously. Now that he finds himself in the crosshairs of the media as well as of his rivals, he won’t have that luxury anymore.
Just as important for Cain is the question of how he can position himself as more than a source of glib audience-pleasing one-liners. His bump in the polls is the result of his generally strong debate performances, but as a first-tier candidate, he has to start acting and sounding like someone who can actually govern. That will require a greater command of the issues as well as an impression of seriousness that has so far been sorely lacking from his campaign. But that’s asking a lot from a man who, despite his charm and strong speaking style, has made it clear he hasn’t the interest or the ability to discuss any topic in depth other than his “9-9-9” tax plan.
There are those who have criticized the frequency of the Republican debates and the greater impact on the race than anyone expected. Yet the intense interest and large audiences shouldn’t have surprised us. The debates are, in effect, a political reality show that has focused like a laser beam on the shortcomings and strengths of the candidates. Tim Pawlenty was destroyed by one memorable miscue back in June. Rick Perry’s awful debate performances have downsized him from a frontrunner to an also-ran.
By contrast, Cain has benefited from the debates. They introduced him to a national audience who knew little of him before the summer and who liked what they saw. But if voters now perceive him as having a genuine chance of being nominated, they are not likely to judge his utterances with the same leniency. Stars get different treatment, but they also must perform deliberately. And that is the potential pitfall for Cain.
Cain has the impervious personality of a good salesman who is undaunted by resistance to his pitches. But presidents need more than a thick skin. While many of his apologists have been spouting nonsense about the candidate not needing to know much about foreign policy or to have a stronger grasp of how government actually works, most voters are smart enough to see through such arguments. Cain is clearly a policy novice who hasn’t thought or read much about most of the issues that the next president will encounter.
Cain’s problem tonight is not so much that some of those trailing him in the polls will attack him. He probably hasn’t much to fear from Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum even though both have more knowledge of the issues. Rather, it is that the more the discussion centers on him, the more likely it is his superficiality will become apparent. Cain’s rise so far has had more to do with the failures of others than his own strengths. Now that the spotlight is on him, he won’t be able to hide his glaring weaknesses.