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.
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?
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.
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.