Image: Herman Cain greets Mitt Romney before a Republican presidential debate Tuesday.
Chris Carlson  /  AP file
Republican presidential candidates businessman Herman Cain, left, shakes hands with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney before a Republican presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, in Las Vegas.
updated 10/28/2011 3:08:04 PM ET 2011-10-28T19:08:04

Herman Cain is Mitt Romney's worst nightmare, but not for the reasons you might think.

Sure, the former pizza company CEO shares top-tier status with Romney in most national polls of GOP voters, and his fortunes are on the rise in early voting states. But nobody outside his small circle of advisers believes that Cain has a significant chance of winning the nomination.

The most serious threat Cain poses to Romney is that his candidacy, however fragile and fleeting, underscores the power of a virtue that Romney seems to lack: Authenticity.

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That was the bugaboo for Romney four years ago when his policy shifts on abortion, guns, health care and several other issues both failed to endear him to conservatives and undercut inroads he could have made with moderates. Worse, Romney limped out of the 2008 race looking like a phony.

There may be no uglier brand in politics today than a lack of authenticity. Voters are tired of spin and lies from American institutions, particularly politics, and the Internet has armed them with the tools to discover for themselves when a leader is two-faced.

New technologies and the 24/7 news cycle make the connection between voters and politicians more intimate: On cable TV, Twitter, Facebook, mobile phones and tablets - voters can size up the character of candidates like they would a new neighbor.

Romney needs to pass that test. For all his faults, Cain is underscoring the attraction of a plain-speaking candidate who appears comfortable in his own skin.

He joked about the many "stan" nations, and said he would readily admit when stumped by a foreign policy question.

He brushed off a controversy over his immigration policy (rife with its own flip-flops) with a self-effacing nod to his light approach to policy. America, he said, "needs to get a sense of humor."

He released an ad that literally blew smoke in the face of viewers.

All this is not to defend the shallowness of Cain's policy agenda or to suggest that he's ready to be president, because he isn't. But this is not the first time that a politician has stepped into the authenticity breach to capture the hearts of voters, if only until the campaign got serious. Remember Ross Perot in 1992?

Rough week for Romney and Perry

Cain is a warning to Romney and the rest of the presidential field, including Barack Obama, that voters will forgive a lot of sins but they can't stand a phony.

Image: Kerry
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images file
John Kerry kite surfs July 20, 2004, off the shore of Nantucket, Mass.

The single most powerful line of President Bush's reelection campaign in 2004 was the one he delivered at the GOP convention. "Even when we don't agree, Bush said, "at least you know what I believe and where I stand."

Bush knew that voters were weary of his agenda and his war in Iraq. He also knew voters had doubts about Democratic rival John Kerry's authenticity, because a negative GOP campaign strategy fostered them.

The Bush operation famously released an ad that accused Kerry of shifting policies "which ever way the wind blows:" It showed him windsurfing.

If Romney wins the nomination, Obama will try to do to Romney what Bush did to Kerry.

The Democratic National Committee, acting on Obama's behalf, released a "Which Mitt" web video Thursday that criticized Romney for wavering in support of an Ohio ballot measure supported by an embattled GOP governor. "Mitt Romney's really living up to his hard-earned reputation as a convictionless politician ...," DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said.

There was no video of Romney windsurfing. Still, Woodhouse said without a hint of irony that Romney's policies are "changing with the political winds."

The article, "Cain Underscores Romney's Authenticity Gap," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Is Cain able?

  1. Transcript of: Is Cain able?

    MATTHEWS: We're back. Now that Herman Cain 's at or near the top of the polls -- we've all seen that -- he's going to have to get used to greater scrutiny and being pounded by all sides. " The New York Times " talked with former Cain staffers who say his campaign is chaotic. " The Times " also said -- was told actually, quote, "everything we tried to do was like pulling teeth to get it accomplished," that's a former staffer in Iowa who for anonymity, of course. Quote, "I've never been in a job as frustrating as this one. We couldn't get an answer on anything. Everything was fly by the seat of your pants." Ron Reagan is a political commentator and author. And, of course, Dana Milbank is a columnist with " The Washington Post ." Dana , you first. It seems that he's getting some attention here he probably wants a frontrunner. Is he the real frontrunner? Has he dislodged Romney ?

    DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST: I don't think so, Chris . And the fact, the numbers you read just a few minutes ago show that. But, you know, he has -- he's polling well nationally, but the elect isn't won nationally. It's won on those early primary states where Romney is really very strong. What you have with Cain is he's become this phenomenon, this flavor of the month.

    MATTHEWS: Was he just on a book tour?

    MILBANK: He was, in the South .

    MATTHEWS: If that's what he's doing, it's working. It's working.

    MILBANK: It's going to make some money for him.

    MATTHEWS: No, but -- OK, let me go to Ron on this. Let me show you - he's talking about having a bull's-eye on his back. Let's take a look at this. Here it is. "I don't know how many of you saw that last debate. I didn't realize the bull's-eye on my back was that big. They came after me like I had talked about their mama." It's always going on here -- it's sort of regular street corner talk, but he's like trying to set it up so if they go after him, there's something wrong with them. He should be sort of immunized against attack.

    RON REAGAN, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, he better be careful what he wishes for if he wants to be a frontrunner in this campaign, he's going to draw more scrutiny, and that scrutiny will find him wanting, I'm afraid. There is real suspicion here that Herman Cain is not actually running for president, he's on a book tour. He hasn't built the organizations in the early states you would expect a serious presidential candidate to do, and he's not acting like a serious presidential candidate in many ways, blowing off fundraisers and then all sorts of things.

    MATTHEWS: You know what he's good at? And Dana , you know what he's really good at? Not being Mitt Romney .

    REAGAN: Yes, that's right.

    MATTHEWS: Which is the main role he's been cast for, Dana , whether he ever asked for it or not, he is not Mitt Romney . And anybody who ain't Mitt Romney will get a lot of people saying he's the guy I want for president.

    MILBANK: That's true -- and he's certainly not Barack Obama. And I think there's a consensus that he's not ready for primetime. But you know what? He is ready for late night, so he's been valuable in the entertainment factor.

    MATTHEWS: OK. One of the back-benchers, Rick Santorum , who believes on what he says about abortion rights , has gone after him. Here's an ad from Rick Santorum , the former senator from Pennsylvania going after Cain for the answer that he gave rather directly about the issue of a family member if they were raped, where would he be on abortion? Let's listen.

    HERMAN CAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE : It comes down to it's not the government's role or anybody else's role to make that decision. Secondly, if you look at the statistical incidence, you're not talking about that big a number. So what I'm saying is, it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make.

    NARRATOR: " The Washington Post " described Cain 's position as, quote, "an essentially pro- abortion rights position." And Bryian Fischer of the American Family Association said, " Cain 's position could have come right out of the Planned Parenthood playbook." Herman Cain , the more we learn, the more concerned we become.

    MATTHEWS: Wow. You know, Ron , Herman Cain sounds like my dad used to talk. Yes, I'm pro-life, but it's up to the woman.

    MATTHEWS: Yes, I mean, he's pro-choice, but he thinks he's pro-life because that sounds better, you know? I mean --

    REAGAN: That's exactly right. He has to be pro-life because he's running as a Republican here. Listen, he's not a serious political candidate, but the fact that we're talking about Herman Cain as a potential front-runner in the Republican primaries here points to the paucity of the Republican field. Really? I mean, I guess if you squint your eyes real hard, Mitt Romney looks like he could maybe be sort of be president. But none of the other people look like they belong anywhere near the Oval Office . It's really striking.

    MATTHEWS: Last word from you. Do you agree with that? This is a weak field.

    MILBANK: Well, unbelievably, and I'm waiting for Santorum to make his surge. He's the only left. Maybe Gary Johnson ?

    MATTHEWS: I don't know. I've watched the luck of Barack Obama all my life -- since he started, he's had no real opponent except for Alan Keyes when he ran for the Senate . Hillary took the wrong side of the war, McCain was at the end of his career, a little late for the race, and this guy, maybe he's lucky to pull this off and has the biggest dance in the world to run against --

    MILBANK: Better be lucky than sorry.

    MATTHEWS: Thank you, Milbank . Thank you for coming here. Thank you very much , Ron Reagan , as


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