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The Question Cain Needs to Answer

One aspect of the Republican presidential debates you can always count on is watching the moderator attempt to form a question out of a lingering perception about a certain candidate. So despite Herman Cain’s lead in several state polls, and even a Rasmussen poll that had him edging President Obama in a general election, no one seems to be taking him seriously as a candidate. Anderson Cooper wanted Cain to tell him why that is.

There is no inoffensive way to phrase such a question, and Cooper gave it his best effort. This is what he came up with, according to the transcript:

Herman Cain, you’re — Herman Cain, you’re tied with Governor Romney in some of the polls for the top leadership position right now. Is a — are they the ones — are either Governor Perry or Governor Romney, are they the ones who should be president?

Swing and a miss, Anderson. Of course, there are a host of reasons Cain has yet to make a convincing case for himself. The two best known are the left-right united opposition to his “9-9-9” plan, and his atrocious record on answering foreign policy questions. But Cooper should have asked Cain why he thinks he hasn’t been effective at reassuring voters he is ready to be president, and what he will do to better make his case.

Cooper was simply repeating the perceptions about Cain in relation to the other candidates. And in that, Cooper was right: the perception seems to be that Cain’s lead in the polls is Perry’s if he wants it back, and that Mitt Romney is the strongest general election candidate. It may or may not be too late for Perry; the race has been fluid enough that a second round of momentum is not out of the question. And Romney continues to appear as though his support has a ceiling.

This was the last question of the night, and this was the last debate for several weeks. If Cooper had asked the question correctly, it would have given Cain a real opportunity. It was easy for Cain to answer the question: should someone besides you be president? (Cain’s answer: “No, I should be president.”) And we can’t expect Cooper to ask: “Why do people act like your candidacy is a joke?”

But that latter question is the one Cain needs to answer, even if he isn’t asked. The perception that he is bookmarking the Not Romney vote without solidifying it is following his campaign like a shadow. For now, he’s deflecting some of the attention from Romney and letting Perry up off the mat.