Often it’s the story behind the story that should be the lead.
It’s not surprising Herman Cain won the Citizen Outreach straw poll conducted at the Western Republican Leadership Conference that wrapped up in Las Vegas last week.
Cain withstood withering attacks on his “9-9-9” tax plan and didn’t even flinch when Texas Gov. Rick Perry called him “brother.” And we know Cain is popular in Nevada: Back in July, he won the Conservative Leadership Conference straw poll, too.
But guess who came in second? Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who garnered 28.99 percent to Cain’s 30.8 percent. (There were 522 people who participated.)
Perhaps the storied antipathy that conservatives in the party feel toward Romney has been overstated, or at least is softening? Perhaps Romney’s debate performance — where he stumbled under Perry’s allegation that Romney had hired an illegal immigrant — didn’t hurt him with voters as much as some thought? Or perhaps the aura of inevitability that Romney has built around himself this time around is finally catching on?
The other story in the straw poll numbers: Newt Gingrich’s rise (he got 20.29 percent) and Perry’s fall (he earned just 3.62 percent). That showed the day after the debate, when Perry’s lackluster, read-from-notes speech earned polite applause from a half-full showroom, while Gingrich’s unannounced, extemporaneous speech scored a rousing standing ovation.
After the debate, Gingrich’s campaign issued a news release saying “Even the media is recognizing Newt’s surge.”
“Now more and more pundits, columnists and members of the media are finally admitting that it’s Newt who is owning the debates,” the release said.
I wouldn’t go that far, but I would admit that I find myself watching debates and wanting to hear much more from people such as Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul, and less — much, much less — from candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum.
But that’s been true for decades in Paul’s case — his campaign has a new ad showing Paul saying the same things in the 1988 campaign (when Paul ran as the Libertarian nominee for president) as he’s saying today. That’s consistency no other candidate can match.
And Gingrich has always been the Republican Party’s modern idea man. It’s impossible to come away from a Gingrich speech — even if you vehemently disagree with what he says — without at least appreciating the depth of thought he’s given his subject.
It’s Gingrich who (mostly) has been on message, refusing to engage in petty squabbles with fellow candidates while focusing his fire on President Barack Obama. That’s probably why pollster and communications expert Frank Luntz lent him some stage time the day after the debate. Luntz complained that while the Republicans have the advantage because Obama’s efforts to stimulate the economy have not produced results, the GOP is still in danger of losing the race.
“If you Republicans insist on tearing yourselves down, you have no one to blame but yourselves if you lose,” Luntz said shortly before introducing Gingrich. “At this point, Obama will be re-elected because Republicans are divided and what happened last night was horrific.”
He was referring, of course, to the squabbling at the CNN debate, in which Romney, Perry, Cain and even Gingrich bickered on national television. Only it was Romney who broke the debate rules and started cross-examining his opponents, to great effect. He got Cain to admit “9-9-9” would raise Las Vegans’ sales tax (when the 9 percent federal tax is laid atop the current 8.1 Clark County sales tax rate) to 17.1 percent. He got Gingrich to admit the former speaker had once favored an individual mandate to buy health insurance. And he lectured Perry about politeness, to the seeming delight of the audience that booed Perry’s frequent interruptions.
All in all, not a bad week for Romney.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.