GOP Settles Into 3-Way Presidential Race

“Republican voters may not be settled, but the Republican field is,” said GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, who supported Mitt Romney in 2008 but is uncommitted so far this time around. “There’s slow-and-steady Mitt Romney, and then there are all the other candidates who keep going up and down. Sometimes last-man-standing is a good strategy. Mitt Romney may just be able to outlast everyone else.”

 

It’s time to “start the game,” Castellanos added, meaning the electoral part of the nomination selection process. “Play ball.”

 

Palin’s decision did not come as a surprise to many political strategists. They had always believed that she would ultimately decide not to enter the race, after making some moves to confirm her influence among conservatives who were first drawn to Bachmann’s candidacy, then to Perry, and who are now rallying around Cain.

 

Palin conducted a high-profile bus tour this summer with stops in the key early caucus and primary states, and issued a series of statements meant to keep alive speculation about a possible candidacy. But she never succeeded in generating the ground swell of support experienced by Perry and later Christie which she would have needed to jump start a successful presidential campaign at this point.

 

PALIN BOWS OUT

 

The day after Christie announced that he would not run, Palin issued a letter to her supporters saying that the needs of her family precluded here entering the race, and that she will, instead, continue to use her influence to help elect more Republicans next year. “We need to continue to actively and aggressively help those who will stop the ‘fundamental transformation’ of our nation and instead seek the restoration of our greatness, our goodness and our constitutional republic based on the rule of law. In the coming weeks, I will help coordinate strategies to assist in replacing the president, retaking the Senate and maintaining the House,” she wrote.

 

Some GOP political consultants think that Palin could have been a successful candidate if she had gotten into the race at the beginning. “She has her own political base; she certainly generates media attention and she can raise money,” said Ed Rollins, a strategist for Bachmann. “There’s no doubt in my mind, if she had started a year and a half ago, she could have been a serious candidate. But it would have been thrown together. I don’t think it’s possible for her to have done it now.”

 

Given the current state of the GOP race, Palin had little choice but to step aside.

 

“Palin had everything to lose by running,” said Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist who worked for McCain in 2008. “Now she preserves her celebrity status, her power to generate fees and her ability to be a king- and queen-maker with her political support and PAC money.”

 

WE HAVEN’T HEARD THE LAST OF SARAH PALIN

 

Palin later said that her announcement permits her to continue exerting her influence in other ways, as the Fox News commentator, a Tea Party favorite and a prodigious fundraiser through the 2012 election cycle.

 

“You’re unshackled, and you’re allowed to be more active,” Palin said in a follow-up radio interview with conservative talk show host Mark Levin. Many analysts believed that Palin could never succeed as a candidate in her own right in 2012, because Democrats and the liberal media have done such an effective job in demonizing her since she ran on John McCain’s ticket for vice president in 2008.

 

Palin’s continued popularity with the conservative base means that her support would be extremely valuable to any GOP presidential candidate. After her announcement, several of the GOP contenders issued complimentary statements, in an obvious effort to win Palin’s endorsement.

 

PARTY DIVIDED ALONG IDEOLOGICAL LINES

 

With the field now set, the underlying divisions within the Republican Party have once again come to the fore. It is shaping up as a contest between the moderate-establishment wing of the party, which supports Romney as the most attractive candidate in the general election, and the social and fiscal conservative wing of the party, including the religious right, for whose support Perry and Cain are now battling.

 

In the early months of the campaign, Romney was the clear frontrunner. He tried but failed to convince the conservative wing of the partyh to embrace his candidacy for the sake of defeating their common enemy, Obama. His inability to achieve that aim led to the clamor which prompted Perry to make a late entry into the race this summer. Perry’s subsequent stumbles in the debates and questions about his immigration policies in Texas have caused many disillusioned conservatives to park their support, at least for the time being, with Cain.

 

FLORIDA STRAW POLL WAS THE TURNING POINT

 

The turning point in the campaign so far was Florida’s Republican presidential straw poll on September 24, in which Cain won 37.1 percent of the votes. Perry came in second with 15.4 percent, nearly tied with Romney, who did not compete at all in the Florida event.

 

As it looks now, the nomination may ultimately turn on whether Cain can retain and build upon his current surge of support. If Cain can’t capitalize on this opportunity, the question becomes whether Perry can recover from his weak start and attract more support from the moderate wing of the party, if they become convinced that Romney cannot win the nomination.

 

Cain’s campaign has the advantages of his communications skills, and a simple, straightforward formula for fixing the US economy. His major liabilities include his lack of any previous experience as an elected government official, on any level, and doubts that he will be able to stand up to the intense media and opposition scrutiny that comes with serious contender status.

 

REPUBLICANS GROWING MORE CONFIDENT ABOUT BEATING OBAMA

 

Although they have not settled on their choice to beat Obama next year, more than 8 in 10 Republicans are now confident that their candidate will succeed in denying the president a second term. Obama’s job approval ratings are at a low point in his presidency. After Yom Kippur, Gallup’s daily tracking poll recorded his approval rating at only 39 percent, which at this stage of his first term, is almost unrecoverable. Those who disapprove of his performance as president hit a high of 53 percent. At the same time, Gallup found that Perry’s “positive intensity score” among Republican voters has fallen sharply from 24 to 15 following the last candidate debate, while Cain’s current score in 30, far higher than any other GOP candidate at the current time.

 

THE LONG SHOTS

 

This suggests that the support of this segment is still up for grabs. If Cain cannot maintain his momentum, conservative Republican voters may still not return to Perry. Since the most recent debate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum have also started to gain support, although they are both still far behind the three frontrunners.

 

Gingrich is the most brilliant strategist and policy expert among all of the candidates. However, aside from his sterling performances in the debates and in media interviews, his grass roots campaign organization in the major caucus and primary states is virtually non-existent. Gingrich has always had a very sharp tongue, and his more provocative statements have often gotten him into political trouble. If he does become the leading GOP conservative candidate, Democrats and the liberal media can be expected to pounce on his controversial record as House Speaker, as well as some unpleasant details about his personal life.

 

Santorum was once one of the rising stars of the GOP’s conservative wing, but his political career stumbled when he lost his bid for re-election to a third term in the US Senate from Pennsylvania in the 2006 midterm election. It is possible that the conservatives could rally behind him if their other leading candidates in the race stumble.

 

However, at this point, Romney, Perry and Cain are clearly the frontrunners for the nomination, and all the other candidates have to be classified as long shots.

 

ROMNEY VS. PERRY ON THE ISSUES

 

When Republicans were asked to evaluate the positions of Romney against those of Perry directly, they split about evenly on five issues. Romney holds the advantage, because of his policies for reviving the US economy, while Perry holds an advantage on health care, reflecting similarities between the Massachusetts health coverage law which Romney passed while governor of the state, and Obamacare, which all of the GOP candidates have promised to revoke.

 

In the eyes of GOP voters, Romney has a major advantage over Perry on two important questions: experience and electability. When asked who has the better experience to be president, Romney wins 50 to 30 percent. Similarly, after having had a chance to see Perry in action in three televised candidate debates, 51 percent of Republicans now say that Romney has a better shot at beating Obama, versus on 31 percent who say that Perry has a better chance to win the White House.

 

PERRY LOSING TEA PARTY SUPPORT

 

Most of the recent decline in Perry’s support comes from supporters of the Tea Party movement. In early September, Perry had the support of 45 percent of those who said that they “strongly” back the Tea Party. That figure has now fallen to only 10 percent of this group. At the same time, Cain’s support with this group has soared from 5 percent to 30 percent.

 

Cain has yet to go into detail on many of his issue positions. Most of his current appeal is based upon his eloquence and winning personality. However, if Cain wants to stay in the top tier of candidates, he will have to flesh out those positions, and be prepared to defend them in much greater depth in upcoming debates.

 

ROMNEY LEADS BUT STILL CAN’T CLOSE THE SALE

 

Romney’s problem in wrapping up the nomination in the wake of Perry’s decline, is evident from the movement in the opinion polls following the most recent debate. Even though Perry saw nearly half of his support evaporate, all of it went Cain.

 

Romney’s level of support remains stuck at about a quarter of the Republican electorate. It has hardly moved at all since the race for the nomination began in earnest earlier this year, despite Romney’s strong and consistent performance in a series of debates, and his mainstream position statements on a broad range of issues.

 

Romney’s supporters do not think that Perry and the other candidates will be able to change the minds of Romney’s current supporters by attacking his state health-care plan in Massachusetts or attacking his earlier, more moderate positions on many social issues. They believe that most Republicans were already aware of these Romney positions, which are much the same as they were in 2008, before the campaign started. They have obviously decided to support Romney in spite of them.

 

ROMNEY NOW A BETTER CANDIDATE

 

Republican strategists say that Romney’s performance on the campaign trail has been steadily improving over the past few months, making him an even more formidable challenger to Obama in the general election. In the end, they believe that reluctant conservatives will decide that beating Obama with Romney would be far more preferable to seeing Obama win a second term as president by defeating a more ideologically acceptable candidate who is deemed too conservative by most independent and swing voters..

 

With Christie and Palin now out of the race, Romney’s campaign is again trying to build an aura of inevitability around him by gathering as many GOP elected officials, major financiers and party activists as it can around his candidacy. But there is danger in that strategy. Romney does not want to be tagged as the candidate anointed by party leaders, given the strong distaste for the party establishment among grass-roots conservatives today.

 

PERRY DOWN BUT NOT OUT

 

Perry’s campaign, while down in the national polls, is far from out. Dave Carney, Perry’s chief strategist, acknowledged that his candidate must improve his debate performance. “We have to work at getting better,” he said. “We have to get better prepared. We’re not blind to that fact, but this is a long campaign. . . . We’re not interested in winning the media war; we’re interested in winning elections. That has a whole different timetable.”

 

Perry still has important assets as a presidential candidate. He has a strong record overall as the governor of Texas over the past decade. He also has a consistently conservative record on most social and moral issues. This is what prompted many longtime party donors and activists to urge him to enter the race this summer.

 

Since Christie announced that he was stepping aside, Perry’s campaign has reached out to some of those who were urging the New Jersey governor to run. Perry’s supporters argue that he is the inevitable candidate because Romney cannot win enough support from party conservatives to win the nomination, and Cain lacks the necessary experience to be a credible presidential candidate.

 

PERRY SURROGATE ATTACKS ROMNEY’S MORMON FAITH

 

Perry’s campaign will also benefit from an open attack on Romney’s Mormon faith by one of Perry’s leading religious right supporters Southern Baptist Convention leader Robert Jeffress told conservatives attending the Value Voters summit in Washington, DC that in his opinion, Romney is not a Christian, and suggested that this disqualified him as an acceptable presidential candidate, when there were legitimate Christians seeking the nomination.

 

Jeffress said of Romney, “I think he’s a fine family person,” but denied that he or any other Mormon could be called a Christian. He also said that Romney was a “conservative out of convenience” rather than conviction on key social and moral issues.

 

Later, speaking with reporters Jeffress said that, although “it’s not politically correct to say, Mormonism is a cult” He and other evangelical Christian leaders flatly reject the claim by Mormon theology that it is a branch of Christianity. They say that the Mormon belief in the so-called “Latter Day Saints,” and their acceptance of the Book of Mormon as a 19th century addition to the Bible amounts to heresy, and disqualifies them from identifying as Christians.

 

ROMNEY ADDRESSED THIS ISSUE IN 2008

 

Romney’s religion was the subject of much discussion in the 2008 presidential campaign and Jeffress made the same charges then. Romney responded then to the issue of his faith and its impact on his candidacy with a high-profile speech to address the allegations of religious right leaders. That appeared to have succeeded in putting the issue to rest, until now.

 

Perry’s campaign was careful to distance itself from Jeffress’ explosive charge. It issued a statement that, “The governor [Perry] does not believe Mormonism is a cult. He is not in the business of judging people. That’s G-d’s job.” The statement also pointed out the that it was conference organizers who chose Jeffress to make the introduction for Perry, not his campaign.

 

Nevertheless, it is well known that Jeffress and Perry are close. They partnered an August prayer event in Houston which Perry hosted called “The Response,” but Jeffress denied to reporters that he and Perry had conspired to raise the issue of Romney’s faith publicly. “I did not talk about my Mormon views” with the governor, Jeffress said, “and I’m not insinuating that the governor shares those at all. He may not share them at all.” However, Jeffress added that he believes many evangelical Christians agree with his view that the Mormon religion is not part of Christianity, even if they were afraid to voice their opinions publicly.

 

Later at the Values Voter Summit, conservative commentator Bill Bennett upbraided Jeffress by name, saying, “Do not give voice to bigotry.” He was one of the few speakers at the event to publicly condemn the attack on Romney’s Mormon faith.

 

The accusation attracted so much media attention that Perry’s campaign, desperately seeking for a way to bash Romney, did not have to do anything to keep the issue in the spotlight. All of the other candidates have been asked to make their own comments on Romney’s Mormon faith, and whether they consider him to be a Christian. They all declined to commit themselves.

 

CANDIDATES MAKE THEIR PITCHES TO A CONSERVATIVE AUDIENCE

 

At the Value Voters summit, Perry, gave a passionate, confident speech in which he talked about the consistency of his support for conservative positions on moral and social issues based upon his commitment to the “absolute principle, while suggesting that for Romney, without mentioning him by name, his relatively late conversion to conservative positions was little more than “an election-year slogan.“

 

Also speaking at the three-day convention were Bachmann, Cain, Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and libertarian Ron Paul. All emphasized their Christian beliefs and their family values. Of all the speakers, Cain got the most standing ovations and the loudest applause.

 

Romney also received applause, and concentrated on his economic message. He reiterated support for conservative positions, including a call for the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision to be overturned, and support for traditional marriage, but did not raise the question of his faith.

 

ROMNEY’S MUTED RESPONSE

 

He did refer to the issue indirectly by saying, “the blessings of faith carry the responsibility of civil and respectful debate. The task before us is to focus on the conservative beliefs and the values that unite us. Let no agenda narrow our vision or drive us apart. We have important work to accomplish.” Romney’s campaign says that he does not intend to give another major speech on his faith during this campaign.

 

Some attending the event expressed concern to reporters about Romney’s positions on specific policy issues. Mathew D. Staver, the dean of the Liberty University School of Law, said that even through Romney, in his speech to the group, “did a good job and hit all the issues, it did not change my opinion, however. He needs to renounce RomneyCare and not defend it or distinguish it from ObamaCare.”

 

Veteran religious right activist Ralph Reed, who directs the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said that, “Romney has retooled to some extent and is running as someone who knows how to turn around the economy and create jobs. That’s not necessarily a mistake.”

 

RON PAUL AND CAIN WITH THE LATEST STRAW POLL

 

The Values Voter convention held its own straw poll, which libertarian candidate Ron Paul won with 37 percent of the vote. That result was dismissed as insignificant, because of the busloads of conservative college student activists who bought their way into the event on the day the poll took place.

 

Paul is a doctrinaire libertarian who was dismissed as a crank extremist in the 2008 GOP primary campaign, but he is considered a hero of the Tea Party movement, and this year has enough money to run a sophisticated campaign to maximize his media exposure. This explains the presence of so many pro-Paul students at the Washington event. They were bused in to manipulate the results of the poll, and do not represent the opinion of most Republican voters.

 

Throwing out the Paul votes as suspect, the others at the event expressed a strong preference for Cain (23 percent), followed by Santorum (16 percent). Surprisingly, the conservative Perry finished well behind them both, tied with Bachmann at 8 percent. On the other hand, the fact that Romney attracted only 4 percent was not a surprise, but also not encouraging for his chances to capture the support of the right wing of his party, which he will need for his candidacy to survive the primaries, which will start in January.

 

CAIN’S APPEALING PERSONAL STORY

 

While Cain is certainly an unconventional choice for the presidential nomination, he has some very appealing traits. He is a self-made man, and an embodiment of the American dream. He achieved success in business after working his way up from poverty-stricken origins, while retaining an upbeat outlook and an engaging personality.

 

Seventy percent of GOP conservatives say that the more they learn about Cain, the more they like him.

 

Cain, who is black, was raised in a government housing project in Atlanta by a mother who worked as a cleaning woman and a father who worked primarily as a chauffeur and also took on other odd jobs for the benefit of his family. Eventually, Cain’s father achieved his goals of buying a house for his family and sending his children to college. He also gave his son Herman his own indomitable work ethic.

 

After working as a civilian computer analyst for the US Navy, and earning a masters degree, Herman Cain achieved success in the fast food business. He started out working for the Coca Cola company, and eventually became the CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain, which he had first turned around, and then bought out from its owner, the Pillsbury company.

 

His first venture into national politics came in 1994, when he attended a town hall meeting in Omaha where President Bill Clinton was promoting his health-care reform proposal. Cain, who at the time was running Godfather’s, grabbed headlines by challenging the president on his analysis of the cost of his plan to businesses.

 

His other national political exposures include a brief GOP presidential run in 2000, and a failed attempt to win the GOP Senatorial nomination in Georgia in 2004. Despite his political defeats, Cain became a favorite motivational speaker for conservative audiences.

 

RIDING HIS SUCCESS IN THE DEBATES

 

Cain brought no constituency of his own into the presidential race. The explosive growth in his popularity with the conservative base is primarily a result of his strong performances in the debates. He is able to think quickly on his feet and makes his points simply and forcefully. His lively sense of humor and upbeat style injected a light touch to the discussion of gloomy topics, such as the current problems confronting the US economy.

 

Cain has said that he had long expected to gain momentum in the campaign, but that the recent explosive growth of interest in his candidacy has taken him by surprise.

 

“My message of common-sense solutions is resonating with people,” Cain said in an interview. “People around the country are starting to know who I am and starting to identify me with solutions, not rhetoric.”

 

In contrast to Romney, Cain’s credentials as a believing Christian in the eyes of the religious right are unchallengeable. He has served as a Christian minister. He is also a devoted husband, father and grandfather.

 

In 2006, Cain was diagnosed with colon cancer, which had spread to his liver. Surgeons removed 30 percent of Cain’s colon and 70 percent of his liver. Cain says that, according to his doctors, today he is cancer-free. However, the state of his health could become a campaign issue in the general election, if he makes it that far.

 

CAIN’S 9-9-9 TAX REFORM PLAN

 

Cain’s “9-9-9” plan to reform the federal tax code and restart the economy has also struck a chord with fiscal conservatives. His simple economic formula would replace today’s over-complicated and unfair federal tax system with a 9 percent flat income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax and a 9 percent national sales tax.

 

“It levels the playing field,” he said. “It gets rid of all the loopholes. But the most interesting fact is, it gets the government out of the business of trying to pick winners and losers and trying to decide what’s regressive and what’s not regressive.” Cain has said the measure would be roughly neutral in terms of revenue with the current system but its simplicity and predictability would stimulate private sector economic growth.

 

Under Cain’s plan, business deductions would be limited to investments, purchases from other companies and dividends paid to shareholders. Individuals could deduct only charitable contributions. Businesses and individuals in so-called empowerment zones could qualify for additional deductions.

 

RACIAL ISSUES

 

Cain’s status as a black Republican has added another dimension to his campaign, and raised the admittedly still remote possibility of a presidential race between two black major party candidates.

 

Cain grew up in the South when segregation was still the legally sanctioned practiced there. When asked recently whether he was bitter about the discriminatory treatment he suffered at that time, he put an optimistic spin on the experience.

 

“I’m not angry with America, because America has something that a lot of other countries don’t have: The ability to change,” he responded. “That’s the greatness of this country. We have always had struggles throughout our short 235-year history. Why be bitter? Why not embrace the change, especially since it’s positive?”

 

Race has proven to be a doubled edged issue for Cain. He has been harshly criticized by liberals for saying that American blacks had been “brainwashed” into supporting Democrats. More recently, Cain was criticized by conservatives for calling Perry “insensitive” over charges that the Perry family rented a hunting camp in Texas which was known by a racially charged name until just a few years ago. Perry claims that his father painted over the rock outside the camp which bore that offensive name over 30 years ago, but media reports dispute exactly when the rock was painted over, keeping that non-issue in the political headlines for days.

 

CAIN ON MUSLIM TERRORISM AND SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL

 

Cain once said that if elected president, he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet unless he proves his loyalty to America, which led to accusations of religious bigotry. Cain had earlier said that Americans should be able to ban mosques from their communities if they so choose, and that he considers Islam to be not merely a religion, but also a political system that seeks to impose Sharia law on American courts and does not recognize separation of church and state. Under fire, he has since amended one of those comments to say that he would not appoint a “jihadist” to his cabinet.

 

In a May interview, Cain condemned Obama’s call for Israel to return to the pre-1967 borders in agreeing to the formation of a Palestinian state. The president was effectively throwing Israel “under the bus,” Cain said.

 

But Cain was unprepared to answer a relatively simple question about the Arab claim to a refugee right of return to Israel. He quickly did his homework and in his next interview rejected the right of return. He also said that, “it is not the president’s responsibility or authority to dictate to Israel where those borders ought to be. That’s Israel’s decision.”

 

Cain said that his rapid study of the relevant Middle East issues was a normal procedure for him. “The thing you’re going to learn about Herman Cain, if he doesn’t know something, he’s not going to try and fake it or give an answer that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he told Fox News host Sean Hannity. He subsequently made a visit to Israel this summer and met with its leaders in order to further familiarize himself with the issues.

 

He now calls Israel a loyal friend and ally of the US, with which it shares common values and interests, “especially in the eradication of terrorism and the need for bringing peace to the region. Any aspirant to the presidency must have the unshakeable US-Israeli alliance at the core of his or her strategic vision in the Middle East. As your President, I would,” he said.

 

ROMNEY’S FOREIGN POLICY STANCE

 

Romney, in a major foreign policy speech he delivered in Charleston, South Carolina, said that strong US support for Israel was part of his vision for a new “American century” if he is elected president.

 

Romney called Obama’s world view “profoundly mistaken” and suggested that the president does not value a strong America. “An eloquently justified surrender of world leadership is still surrender,” Romney said. “I will not surrender America’s role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I’m not your president. You have that president today.

 

“G-d did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.

 

“This is America’s moment,” Romney said. “We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert that America’s time has passed. That’s utter nonsense.”

 

Romney repeatedly drew loud applause from the audience when he took swipes at Obama’s conduct of foreign relations. At one point, he declared: “I will never, ever apologize for America.”

 

ROMNEY AND PERRY ON ISRAEL

 

With regard to Middle East policy, Romney said, “I will begin discussions with Israel to increase the level of our military assistance and coordination. And I will again reiterate that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.

 

“In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran’s suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world.”

 

Romney suggested that Obama’s wavering attitude towards Israel encourages those who are determined to destroy it. “By 2015, will Israel be even more isolated by a hostile international community? Will those who seek Israel’s destruction feel emboldened by American ambivalence? Will Israel have been forced to fight yet another war to protect its citizens and its right to exist?” Romney asked.

 

He pledged that if elected president, America’s friends would “never fear that we will not stand by them in an hour of need. I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.”

 

Perry has also been highly critical of Obama’s policies towards Israel. Last month, when the Palestinians applied to the Security Council for UN membership and recognition in the Security Council, Perry said, “Simply put, we would not be here today, at the precipice of such a dangerous move, if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn’t naive, arrogant, misguided and dangerous,”

 

CAN CAIN GEAR UP IN TIME TO COMPETE IN IOWA AND NEW HAMPSHIRE?

 

Until now, Cain’s campaign has been a relatively small and lightly funded operation. He is now facing the challenge of rapidly gearing up in the early caucus and primary states to compete with the Romney and Perry state operations which are well funded and have a huge head start in organizing an effective grass roots campaign. Cain has recently shaken up his campaign staff in Iowa, and is facing similar challenges in New Hampshire, where he and the others will face the decision of Republican voters in less than three months.

 

Romney, as the former governor of a neighboring state, is the prohibitive favorite in the New Hampshire primary, which he won easily in 2008. Perry is the current favorite in Iowa, which is dominated by conservative Republicans who have never responded to Romney’s message.

 

The question now is whether Cain can gear up in time to compete with Romney and Perry in Iowa and New Hampshire, where caucus and primary voters expect to have some personal contact with the candidate before giving him their vote.

 

Still waiting in the wings are conservatives Gingrich and Santorum who still hope to gain credibility in the race if Cain stumbles or Perry makes more mistakes. But they are rapidly running out of time, and neither one currently has the resources to be competitive in any of the upcoming statewide caucus and primary races. None of the other candidates in the GOP race today are even remotely credible.

 

ROMNEY NOW HAS THE ADVANTAGE

 

While neither Perry nor Cain is out of it yet, Romney today is clearly the frontrunner. He has run a consistent and practically error-free campaign. He is also confident enough of his position in the race to focus his attacks on Obama rather than respond to attacks from Perry, whose recent tactics, such as deniably playing the religion card, have become increasingly desperate.

 

Perry has lost his initial aura of invincibility upon first entering the race in August, while Romney is now trying to build one of his own. The initiative, at this point, now lies with Cain, who is clearly the most interesting and exciting candidate in the GOP race, but is still a longshot to win the nomination.

 

Cain now has to add more detail and substance on the issues to the likability and eloquence which have carried him this far. If he can pull it off, and win the GOP nomination, Cain could become the most unlikely presidential candidate since. . . Barack Obama.

 

The Washington Post and Bloomberg News contributed to this story