At a hastily called press conference, and flanked by fellow also-ran Michele Bachmann, Cain calls for GOP unity.
The spirit of 2009 was alive on Capitol Hill Wednesday afternoon.
There was Steve King, the conservative Iowa congressman. There was his more polished, nationally famous colleague, Rep. Michele Bachmann. And of course the headlining out-of-town star: Herman Cain. The erstwhile Republican presidential frontrunner was in town speaking to the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, which Bachmann founded, and decided it was the moment to make an endorsement.
Or, to be more accurate, another endorsement. In January, Cain endorsed "we the people." Nine days later, he endorsed Newt Gingrich. And in April, he nearly endorsed Romney -- saying, "it looks like Mitt Romney's going to be that nominee, and we do need to get behind him" -- although that evidently wasn't official. A press conference to announce the latest endorsement was hastily called at the National Republican Club. Despite the starpower, it was somewhat sparsely attended. The audience was about evenly split between three groups: the press; a dozen or so curious realtors, in town for a rally Thursday, who saw the assembly and wandered over to ask who was speaking; and the aging white men in well-tailored suits who can always be found puttering around such clubs. The speakers were occasionally overpowered by the low rumble of passing tour buses.
As for the endorsement, it wasn't exactly gushing. "We as conservatives know that in order to win, we have got to rally around our nominee," Cain said. "It is clear that Governor Mitt Romney is going to be our nominee, so I wanted to formally endorse him today." In a nod to the fact that Romney is not exactly a darling of the GOP's conservative wing, he added, "I know there are lot of people who may not be as excited as some of us about the process, or as excited about the ultimate nominee. It's really simple. Governor Romney gets it right on the big issues. President Obama gets it wrong on all the big issues."
Later, asked whether he was concerned about the presumptive nominee's past support for individual mandates and tax increases, Cain essentially said Romney's governing record ought to be disregarded, since he had sworn to repeal Obamacare. "In the words of my grandfather, what Governor Romney did in Massachusetts, I does not care," Cain explained. What about his prior backing for other candidate? "My endorsement evolved," Cain quipped, a reference to Obama's description of how he came to support gay marriage.
There was much talk of Tea Party unity and power. "We're here to tell you that the Tea Party is more alive than ever before and gaining steam across America," Bachmann said while introducing Cain. He picked up the theme. "When people ask, is the Tea Party dead? The answer is, can you say Richard Mourdock of Indiana, and can you say Sue Fischer of Nebraska?" Cain said, stumbling over the name of Deb Fischer, who won an upset victory in the Republican Senate primary Tuesday. "And when people ask the question, will the Tea Party be as effective in 2012 as it was in 2008? The answer is no, it's going to be more effective in 2012 than it was in 2008," he added, forgetting that the group was founded in 2009.
Though Mourdock's and Fischer's wins are notable, it seems likely they will be in a small crop of major Tea Party wins this year. Meanwhile, the very act of Wednesday's press conference seemed to militate against the premise. After all, here were Bachmann and Cain endorsing Romney, the Massachusetts moderate whose shaky record on conservative issues encouraged each of them -- as well as Rick Perry and Rick Santorum -- to jump into the race to prevent his nomination. Though Romney was made to move right on some issues, there could be few more potent signs of the Tea Party's decision to seek accommodation with the Republican mainstream. (King, perhaps the hardest core Tea Partier of the three, remained conspicuously silent. He has not endorsed Romney.)
But where was Romney? It was the second high-profile Republican endorsement for which he had been absent in as many days, following George W. Bush's strange, tossed-off endorsement Tuesday and Romney's strange ensuing silence. In a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, Cain aide Mark Block, famous as the smoking man in a viral Cain video, told me Cain hadn't had a chance to speak with Romney before his statement today -- he'd been moved to speak out by his meeting with the Tea Party caucus -- but had met with Romney in Boston three weeks ago. "They discussed how Mr. Cain may be able to help the governor by making sure that his staff understood where the Tea Party movement was coming from, the fact that their candidate was not going to be the nominee, that being Herman Cain," Block said.
What's more, Block said, there's a good chance we'll see Cain and Romney campaigning together in the near future. Block said he'd been in Boston for additional meetings with senior Romney staff. He said they discussed a range of possibilities, including Cain acting as a normal surrogate, serving as a sort of ambassador at Tea Party rallies, or spearheading a push among young voters.
In the meantime, Cain was off -- headed to a rally in Missouri on Saturday -- faster than you could say "aw, shucky ducky."