Herman Cain: GOP debate winner?

Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather Pizza, has emerged as the popular favorite after Thursday evening's Republican presidential debate – among the focus group who watched it, anyway.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters / File
Herman Cain takes the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, in this February 11 file photo. A handful of Republican presidential candidates – not including the highest-profile contenders – touted their conservative credentials and vied for a shot at the US political spotlight on Thursday, during the first debate of the 2012 White House campaign. Herman Cain emerged as the popular favorite of the evening.

Herman Who?

Going into the first Republican debate of the 2012 election season Thursday, most voters didn’t know much if anything about contender Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather Pizza and political activist.

Coming out, Mr. Cain was the winner, at least according to a focus group of 29 GOP voters conducted by Republican strategist Frank Luntz in Charleston, S.C.

“How many of you thought Herman Cain won the debate?” Mr. Luntz asked right after its conclusion. Nearly all the hands went up. “Well, we can stop right there,” Luntz said.

Going around the room, Luntz got quick takes on Cain: “Most direct,” said one man. “A breath of fresh air,” said another. “Common sense,” said a woman.

“He talked exactly correctly on taxation and on free markets and leadership,” said another man.

Only one person said they came into the focus group with Cain as their No. 1 choice for Republican nominee. After the debate, a majority stated Cain is now their top choice. “Now, this is unprecedented,” Luntz said.

Cain’s statement on the role of government in job creation got the most positive reaction among focus group attendees of anything any of the five candidates said, according to Luntz.

During the Greenville, S.C., debate, Fox News commentator Juan Williams asked Cain about a labor controversy in South Carolina. Boeing is doing battle with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the location of a new plant there, allegedly in part to take advantage of the state’s anti-union laws.

“Mr. Cain, does the GOP risk the perception it's becoming the union-busting party?” Mr. Williams asked.

Cain expressed outrage over the actions of the NLRB.

“We have a free market system,” he said. “And for the government to start picking winners and losers and then trying to decide where those winners should put their business, it's outrageous. And it would upset the balance of how our free market system is supposed to work.

“One of the biggest problems we have with this country right now today is too much government intervention and trying to tell businesses how to do what they do best, which is create jobs.

“Government doesn't create jobs; businesses create jobs. We need to get government out of the way, including trying to tell a company where they should build a new plant.”

The debate hall – Greenville’s Peace Center – erupted in cheers and applause. And Luntz’s focus group members, each holding a dial to register approval or disapproval of statements, spun the dial to its highest approval level.

In GOP activist circles, Cain is already known as an articulate, charismatic spokesman for conservative principles. He also stands out as a rare African American voice in a party that has struggled to attract black support, particularly in the Obama era. Some political analysts predicted Cain could do well in Thursday’s first GOP debate of the season. But for rank-and-file voters in South Carolina, which will hold one of the early primaries, Cain is a new face on the scene.

The 65-year-old businessman from Atlanta has never held office; he ran for and failed to win the GOP nomination for a US Senate seat from Georgia in 2004. The focus group didn’t care that he has never held elective office, and they liked his answer when he was asked about his lack of political experience. Cain said he was proud that he has never held office before.

“I ask people, 'Most of the people that are in elected office in Washington, D.C., they have held public office before. How's that working for you?' ” Cain said to laughter. “We have a mess. How about sending a problem-solver to the White House?”

Cheers and applause in the debate hall.

“How about someone who has a career of defining the right problem, assigning the right priority, surrounding yourself with the right people?” Cain said. “If you look at this current administration, it is the worst in current history.”

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