by Ted Manna
AR Political Correspondent
Sept. 25, 2011
THE DEBUT OF CITIZEN CAIN
ORLANDO, Fla., Sept. 25, 2011 -- Deep cracks in what seemed to be monolithic momentum of the Republican election machine appeared here Saturday evening when Atlanta businessman Herman Cain swamped the established front-runners in a critical party straw poll that often predicts the Republican presidential nominee - and the next President of the United States.
With more than 37 percent of the 2,657 votes cast among 3,500 attendees at the state Republican convention straw poll Saturday afternoon, Cain won on a simple plank of no-nonsense solutions to the nation's deepening tax dilemma.
The founder of Godfather Pizza more than doubled the combined showing of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, who according to their own debate comments have both changed positions more often than partners at a square dance. Cain stuck with the power of a bold idea.
"This economy is on life support," Cain said at the debate Thursday. "That's why my 9-9-9 plan is a bold solution. It starts with: Throw out the current tax code and pass a 9 percent business flat tax, a 9 percent personal income tax and a 9 percent national sales tax.
"This is the most important part: It eliminates or replaces the corporate income tax, the personal income tax, the capital gains tax, as well as the estate tax. It treats all businesses the same. And the people who are paying only payroll tax, that 15.3 [percent], they don't have to pay. They only have to pay 9 percent.
"And unlike Governor Romney's plan, my plan throws out the old one, and he's still hooked to the current tax code. That dog won't hunt," he said, bringing strong applause for an unusual and provocative position. Some economists suggest it might work, while others point out that it is not based on one's ability to pay. A 9 percent sales tax may be a substantial chunk of the income of a person in poverty, but a negligible amount to a wealthy person.
Cain's tax message apparently aims to level the financial playing field with a highly simplified tax code. It comes at a time when more than 18,000 U.S. corporations, as well as giant U.S.-based multinationals like ExxonMobil and GE, and about half of all Americans, have paid no taxes in recent years.
It's not clear, either, if it can generate the tax revenue the nation needs to do all its work, feed all its people, fill all its schools, face all its emergencies and fight all its wars.
Estimates that 47 percent or more of all Americans pay no taxes would seem to instantly exclude their support for his plan, since they would instead get a regular tax bill and have to pay a national sales tax, too. Corporations are also sure to be wary.
The difference in ExxonMobil's tax bill in 2009, for instance, on 2008 income of slightly more than $1 trillion, would have been $90 billion more than what they did pay, which was nothing at all. General Electric and Citicorp would be in similar straits.
Improbably, a lot of people like Cain's idea.
But it was not Cain's tax plan that was at the heart of the Republican activists' message to Perry, Romney and six other candidates who appeared with him at the Fox News/Google/YouTube Presidentiasl V Debate on Thursday. Instead, the vote should have told the LOSERS they are not - or at least not yet - the right fit.
Brevard County delegate Helen Franta said late Thursday night that Perry "was just not there" at the debate. While Romney "was a little more presidential," she said Herman Cain was attractive enough that "I would vote for him in a straw poll."
Perry had hoped to recover from two successive debate performances that raised serious questions about his electability. He came in second to Cain with just 40 percent of the votes for Cain, the would-be "Pizza President," at 15.43 percent, and raised more questions..
Many read the results as a sharp, clear message from the Florida delegates that they want more from Perry than the scary Social Security rhetoric he has repeatedly delivered. For many, Perry has flunked their tests on entitlements and, more significantly, illegal immigration. Insiders say that the issues should never have been allowed to define him in his first appearances on the debate stage.
Bryan Longworth, who with 145,000 followers bills himself as the top Twitter advocate for the Tea Party and the anti-abortion movement, summed up Cain's surprise win this way: "I voted for him because he is pro-life. I liked them all, but I could see that Herman Cain had more traction and had more momentum. That's why I threw my support to him."
Longworth guessed that front-running Texas Gov. Rick Perry's accusation in Thursday's nationally televised debate that "you don't have a heart" (if you disagree with him on giving in-state state-college tuition discounts to children of illegal immigrants) was the main reason Perry lost the poll.
"When Rick Perry made his statement that if you don't give tax dollars to illegal immigrants," Longworth said, "he lost about half the county. In fact, a lot of those supporters did vote for [former U.S. Sen. Rick] Santorum," he said.
Santorum did do much better than he has in the past, moving up from relative obscurity to win a strong 10.88 percent of the vote. Surprisingly, he edged out Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex), winner of the California straw poll two weeks ago. Santorum's vote total was just fractionally higher than Ron Paul's, who in two presidential races has often used his Internet-savvy base to win such counts.
Paul, who came in second behind Rep Michelle Bachmann in Iowa a month ago, eclipsed her showing tonight. She won just 1 percent of the vote. Fox News anchors had not directed many questions to her, either, some reporters noticed.
Perry may have erred when he did not speak at the straw poll session, but instead sent a televised message. He ended up neck-and-neck with his chief rival, third-place finisher Mitt Romney, who got 14 percent. Perry came to Florida last week with a healthy 6- to 10-percent lead that has apparently evaporated. However, Romney's numbers, at least against the whole field, also dropped sharply in the straw poll.
Romney did not participate in the straw vote campaigns and didn't even send a message to the delegates - but they sent one to him. While he gained vis-á-vis Perry, his tally, too, was unimpressive. His numbers should be easier to massage, however, since he has undeniably closed the gap with Perry.
Saturday's results appear more likely to boost the potential candidacies of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Alaska half-term governor and 2008 vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Neither were considered very likely to run until the picture changed so dramatically in Orlando.
Bachmann took a lowly last place with only 1.57 percent of the delegates, having lost ground steadily since a strong win in her native Iowa. Her endorsement, however, will still be influential in the Republican primaries, where very conservative voters usually vote in high percentages compared to other portions of the GOP electorate.
Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich remained in the middle of the pack with 8.43 percent, but former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman joined Bachmann at the bottom of the pack with just 2.26 percent.
Former N.M. Gov. Gary Johnson, who got the biggest laugh at the debate with his joke about a neighbor's two dogs he said had created more "shovel-ready jobs than this President," didn't translate the guffaws into any votes at all. His support for legalizing some drugs has not gained support in the party.
Here are the official results:
The palpable effervescence that seemed to possess Orlando's giant convention center earlier as nearly 3,500 delegates waited to cast their ballots, in an election that historically has predicted the overall Republican primary winner, soon left the building as delegates weighed the results.
But the convention may also be remembered for its exaggerated claims.
"I believe you will be deciding the next President of the United States," declared Florida Gov. Rick Scott at the start of the annual meeting Saturday. "I'm convinced that the candidate who wins Florida will be our nominee, and I'm convinced that our nominee will defeat Barack Obama. As Florida goes, so goes the nation."
But the prospect of a President Herman Cain, while greatly improved, still did not seem plausible.
After a grueling week of debates, speeches and meetings at which the nine 2012 Republican Presidential hopefuls vied for delegates' allegiance, it all came down to a brief, fateful hour of voting.
For the last three days under an achingly iridescent Florida sky, each candidate tried to reach beyond their base and convince other delegates that he or she is more conservative, faithful and electable than the others. They exposed fissures in the tremulous foundations of a front-runner's image and shored up the shaky scaffolding of their own, more precarious second- and third-tier standings in the polls.
In the debate Thursday night, Perry and Romney sparred over Social Security, health care and immigration and joined the other candidates in an assault on the policies and presidency of President Barack Obama.
That assault continued Saturday afternoon as Scott asserted "we are going to be the leaders.
"Unlike our President," he said, "I'm not going to use money we don't have to create jobs that don't last. I'm not going to use government money to shore up my popularity, and I've paid a price for sticking to my principles. I'm going to stay focused on getting people back to work. These candidates will be focused on getting people back to work."
That vow was likely a retort to critics who say Scott erred early in his first term in sending $2.2 billion back to the U.S. Treasury for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, and later Miami, that might have created 20,000 jobs. The money ended up in Boston.
Atlanta businessman Cain, who has overcome liver and colon cancer and was the only non-politician on the ballot, gained ground with his message of common-sense solutions to the problem of bringing back jobs and supporting U. S. business. He exhorted the crowd to send a message to the country that what they needed was not another politician.
Cain brought the entire delegation to its feet with his vision of prosperity. "Let me tell you what America is going to become. America is going to become its own best customer."
Cain advised the country to "toss out the present tax code" and replace it with his 9-9-9 plan: a 9 percent business flat tax, 9% personal income tax and 9% national sales tax.
"The biggest crisis we have is a severe deficiency of leadership in Washington," he said. "The good news is we can solve these crises. It's just gonna take the right leadership and common sense.
Delegate Craig Trigueiro and his wife, Betty, agreed. After voting, as they took a break from the clamor of nine campaigns and countless causes, they both said they came to the convention thinking they would vote for Perry, but ended up casting their ballots for Cain.
Dr. Trigueiro, a physician from the prosperous Manatee County planned community of Lakewood Ranch, Fla., on the state's Gulf Coast, is president of his local Republican club. Before the tally, he predicted that "Cain will be the winner here - even if he doesn't get the votes to win the straw poll.
"The donors will look at him as a viable candidate," Dr. Trigueiro explained, "and that means more money for his campaign."
Cain's speech swayed another delegate, Dwayne Clark of the Florida Assn. of Black Republicans. On Wednesday, he said, the Jacksonville evangelist and author was solidly in the Perry camp, but by Saturday, just before the vote, was torn between the two candidates.
"My wife told me I have a very hard choice," Clark said.
Cain's comments on foreign policy brought the delegates to their feet.
"We've got to stop sending money to our enemies," Cain thundered.
Evoking former President Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon, he reminded the delegates that Reagan had once described the country as the "shining city on the hill.
"Our country might have slipped down to the middle of the hill," Cain acknowledged during the debate, "[yet] it is still the greatest country on Earth," he said. Like a modern Sisyphus, Cain would "push it back to the top of the hill," he promised.
Two-time Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum reminded delegates that he was the only candidate who'd won an election against an entrenched Democratic machine there which has a million more registered Democrats than Republicans. He has never veered from his message as he moved from state campaigns to the national stage, he said. He, too, was impressively eloquent Saturday, and seemed far more focused than on earlier occasions.
Santorum advised the delegates that they needed to pick a candidate who had not changed from a moderate to a conservative or from a Democrat to a Republican to win an election, in a not so veiled reference to Perry, like Reagan a onetime Democrat.
"You folks in Florida have to find somebody, standing in the crucible of the toughest place, who has proven he can win in states we need to win, " he told them. "Pennsylvania, like yours, is a swing state. If we win Pennsylvania, we win the election," he vowed.
Gingrich repeated his familiar message of conservatism and fiscal responsibility, of "balancing the budget with no tax increases.
"Barack Obama has been the best food stamp President in American histtory. He has killed more jobs and put more people on food stamps than any President in modern times. I would like to be the best paycheck President in American history."
He told the delegate, however, that he desperately needed them to vote for him if is to have a chance of winning. He also held out a prize plum: Gingrich hinted that he would choose popular Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio as his running mate if he is nominated.
"I want you to be with me for the next eight years, not just for me," he entreated the crowd.
Huntsman, like Perry, Paul and Romney, did not appear in person but sent his wife and family as stand-ins. Through them, the former U.S. Ambassador to China - who left high school with a GED diploma and has been honored with six honorary doctorates - touted his accomplishments as Utah's former governor. Yet if a candidate could win on the basis of having the most beautiful family, Huntsman would qualify. He and his poised, beautiful wife, Mary Kaye, brought three gorgeous daughters, Mary Anne, Abby and Elizabeth, and a very handsome son-in-law, Jeff Livingston, all remarkably telegenic. And there are four more Huntsman children, one adopted, back home.
Finally, though, it was Cain's triumph in Orlando today. He became the first black man ever to win such a poll in the Republican Party anywhere in America. In a few short months, he has gained the stature that once attended former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
No African-American since Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts has won such acclaim from white conservatives. He has beaten the nation's top Republican presidential candidates, all white and well-financed, in a straight, heads-up poll in a Deep South state where racism long ran deep - one that has never elected a black man to the U.S. Senate or the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee.
In his lead-in to the NBC Nightly News, though, African-American anchor Lester Holt, whose grandparents were from Jamaica, failed to name Cain or his incredible achievement.
Instead, Holt spoke urgently of an upset in which Rick Perry was beaten "by 22 percent" (that's Cain's 37 percent minus Perry's 15 percent), erroneously said no one had predicted the outcome, and then shifted the narrative to NBC's on=camera White House correspondent. In turn, that reporter didn't mention Cain's name but shifted to a NBC reporter at the convention.
If a listener has to wait through three minutes of verbiage to hear Cain's name, the news media - which obviously had different expectations and is probably working on longer stories for tomorrow - wasn't taking the results very seriously. The New York Times, at least at 3:10am ET, had nothing about Cain's amazing victory on its online Cybertimes home page.
"It's a game ... It's a game," said Cain at the debate Thursday night, where Rick Perry suggested "mating" him to Newt Gingrich, another Georgian, in a veiled hint at miscegenation that could not have escaped many Southern viewers. His name, ironically, echoes the homonym for the character that runs for president in what many consider history's greatest film, Citizen Kane, and his is the perhaps mythical name of a man at the dawn of history who slew his brother, Abel.
For Herman Cain, a strong, dignified, conservative man in the prime of his life, it will soon prove to be not a game at all. For the first time in U.S. history, a real contest between two black Americans for the highest office in the land has begun.
AR Political Correspondent Ted Manna, who covered the 2008 Democratic convention for AR, is based in Melbourne, Fla. Write him at email@example.com. Editor-in-Chief Joe Shea also contributed to this story. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.