Herman Cain Rocks the House at Values Voter Summit

He may be the crowd favorite for now, but the pizza magnate is more likely to be the next Michele Bachmann than the next Rick Perry

Herman Cain speaking - Chris Keane Reuters - banner.jpg

They admired Rick Santorum. They ate up Rick Perry. But it was Herman Cain who rocked the house at the Values Voter Summit.

Many other speakers got standing ovations, but only Cain provoked church-like shouts of "Yeah!" from the crowd. When Newt Gingrich came up to speak after Cain, a good portion of the crowd got up and wandered out of the giant ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel here in Washington.

Think about that: the former speaker of the House of Representatives -- himself once considered a rock star of the Republican base -- thoroughly upstaged by a political novice mostly known as "the pizza guy."

After the speeches, when Gingrich and Cain both held book signing sessions, the line for Cain stretched down a long hallway, then through the hotel's large lobby to the door. The line for Gingrich was, shall we say, substantially shorter.

Based largely on a similarly rousing speech, Cain won the Florida P5 straw poll late last month, dealing Perry a stunning blow. Cain's surge in recent polling -- he's rocketed into second behind Mitt Romney in some polls -- is getting him billed as the next flavor of the month for a GOP base that's having doubts about Perry.

The Cain surge has also provoked a round of media hand-wringing over whether, and how much, to "take him seriously" as a contender, or whether it was still safe to treat him primarily as a man trying to sell books and perhaps get himself a television show.

But rather than the next Rick Perry -- a true threat to Romney's front-runner status -- Cain seems more like the next Michele Bachmann. She, too, won a big straw poll. She, too, is a tea party conservative who provokes eye-rolling from the GOP establishment but has the ability to thrill the base with her debates and speeches. She, too, never rose higher than second place in national polling.

Bachmann seems to be fading now -- she speaks here late Friday night -- but she can claim to have forcibly shaken up the 2012 primary: She nearly single-handedly pushed Tim Pawlenty out of the race. Cain, too, has the potential to torpedo another second-tier candidate before hitting his own probably inevitable flame-out.

To answer all the skepticism, Cain draws upon his seemingly endless supply of crowd-pleasing quips.

The pundits, he noted, say "Herman Cain cannot get the nomination, Herman Cain cannot win the presidency because he doesn't have high name ID. He doesn't have a katrillion dollars. He's never held office. Let me tell you what the American people are saying. They don't care about a katrillion dollars -- America wants to raise some Cain, not raise some money!"

Cain also defended his "9-9-9" plan to overhaul the tax code, saying those who criticize it are using the wrong base assumptions. He criticized the Occupy Wall Street protesters, saying, "They're not working on the right problem. Wall Street didn't write those failed policies!" (Unique among candidates, Cain's speeches seem to demand transcribing with exclamation points.)

He offered a curious recounting of a testy interview on MSNBC the night before, when he seemed to dodge a question about why he didn't participate in the civil rights movement. In the interview, he denied "sitting on the sidelines" of the movement but wouldn't give an alternative characterization.

But in his telling Friday, he had refused to be provoked by an interviewer who wanted him to be angry at America. "I said, 'Sir, you don't get it. I have achieved all of my American dreams and then some!'"

Taking the stage after Cain, Gingrich, who is technically still a participant in the presidential race but often seems more like a commentator on it, gave his take.

The "elite media," he noted, had not long ago been calling the primary a two-person race. In talking to Cain, Gingrich said, "Herman and I decided they may be right, but they got the wrong two people."

Image credit: Chris Keane Reuters

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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