According to the latest CBS poll, Herman Cain is tied for first place in the GOP primary race. While this is big news, Cain’s status as a top-tier candidate will present new challenges and invite greater scrutiny. There is, after all, an advantage to remaining just below the radar. If Cain remains viable, he can expect closer examination from the media and his opponents (this is only fair: Perry, Romney, and Bachmann have aroused such scrutiny.)
Take for example, Cain’s support of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Most conservatives disdain TARP, and my guess is that — just as many of Perry’s early supporters were unaware of some of Perry’s positions — many of Cain’s new supporters don’t realize he supported TARP.
And Cain didn’t just support it in the abstract. In 2008, he wrote passionately in support of the program, arguing: “Wake up people! Owning a part of the major banks in America is not a bad thing. We could make a profit while solving a problem.”
Cain’s service as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in 1995 and 1996 might also be an issue for some tea party conservatives (though it also might help him with others).
Like the rest of the GOP field, Cain is not 100 percent ideologically pure. Still, his greatest challenge won’t be to prove his conservative bona fides, but rather, to overcome the electability issue.
Republicans are obviously desperate to seize this golden opportunity to oust Obama, and one wonders if Cain — who’s never been elected to anything — can pull it off. The last time the GOP nominated a candidate who never held elected office or served in a high military position Wendell Willkie was nominated.
To be sure, Cain’s lack of electoral experience (and, in fairness, his plethora of business experience) has been spun to help him in the primaries. But when the stakes are raised, it will ultimately be a net loss. Political experience is often derided, but it often serves prepares candidates to understand a myriad of complex issues, as well as to avoid common gaffes.
The fact that Cain stumbled on a question about the Palestinian “right of return” to Israeli territory should give pause to anyone concerned about foreign policy and international relations. Republicans also have reason to fear Cain could — at any moment — commit a serious gaffe that might derail his campaign. For example, his comments that he wouldn’t appoint a Muslim to his administration set back his campaign for weeks.
In a general election, that might have doomed him. Cain will have to convince Republican voters that he can avoid gaffes on the trail if he is to be the nominee.