Mitt Romney and Herman Cain Campaign in Parallel Worlds

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The two leading Republican candidates, speaking back to back, starkly illustrated the difference in their approaches

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Mitt Romney and Herman Cain both spoke at Friday afternoon's Americans for Prosperity conference in Washington. They were very different speeches.

Sober, detailed and rather joyless, Romney rolled out a new policy platform, a point-by-point set of proposals to cut federal spending (but not defense), balance the budget and reform entitlements. He read it from a TelePrompter and got a lukewarm reception from the audience of about 1,200 fiscal conservatives.

The first thing Cain did, upon taking the stage, was ridicule the TelePrompters. "Before I get started, I want to know whose TelePrompters these are," he riffed, "because I don't need 'em! Think they're for somebody else."

Especially in these days of ever-deepening scandal, it's always worth sitting through one of Cain's speeches, because there's a section in the middle where he invariably discusses the nasty things people are saying about him that day. Or pretends to -- he generally caricatures his opponents' argument in a way that makes it seem like he's answered his critics when he's only misrepresented them.

On Friday, he didn't disappoint. "You know, I've been in Washington all week. I've attracted some attention," he said with a sly grin.

But instead of bringing up the sexual harassment allegations that continue to dog him, Cain took aim at a New York Times report on his ties to the Koch brothers, the billionaires behind Americans for Prosperity.

"I'm proud to know the Koch brothers!" Cain thundered. "This may be a breaking news announcement for the media: I am the Koch brothers' brother from another mother!" The crowd roared.

The juxtaposition of the two speeches was a perfect illustration of the parallel worlds in which Romney's and Cain's campaigns are operating (as Dave Weigel has aptly noted). 

Half the reporters on the scene were there to write a serious policy story about whether or not Romney's plan would benefit the wealthy and decimate Medicare. The other half (okay, maybe more than half) were there to see if Cain would spontaneously combust; they promptly sprinted across town to attend a press conference at which the lawyer for one of the women who accused Cain of sexual harassment 12 years ago said his client didn't want to go public but continued to maintain she'd been harassed.

There's the world in which Romney is running -- the world of a serious, conventional, unexciting campaign. And then there's the world where Cain is running, where you don't need a TelePrompter because there's not much to remember -- you're basically making it up as you go along. The thing is, this audience, and a lot of Republican voters, prefer the second one.

Image credit: Reuters/Jason Reed
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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