NEW REPUBLICAN FRONT-RUNNER: HERMAN CAIN

by Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- The funniest political debate I ever saw (and moderated) was between a half-dozen minority party candidates for governor of New Jersey. I was doing that sort of thing for WNBC-TV here, fairness rules and all that. My first question had to do with the traffic problems in Jersey cities after a thruway was built from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn, dumping miles of cars across Staten Island onto the streets of Perth Amboy, N.J.

The candidate to my left was on the ballot as "The King of the Gypsies," which apparently he was. His answer: "I could take care of that in a day."

How?

"Magic!"

Things went downhill from there.

Watching the first debate among (some) Republican candidates for president last Thursday night on Fox News, it all came back to me. I think it is a pretty safe bet that none of the debaters below will be our next president:

Congressman Ron Paul, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Herman Cain, former chief executive officer of Godfather's Pizza.

Other distinguished Republicans did not show up. That list included former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and the national jester, Donald Trump.

They met in Greenville, S.C., though occasionally I had the impression they were on Mars. And, for the record, the Fox guys, particularly Chris Wallace, were foxy enough to ask one rough question after another. Pawlenty, in particular, seemed insulted by that.

The answers? Well, Paul, the audience favorite, saw no reason that prostitution or heroin should not be legal playthings. Pawlenty called the United Nations "pathetic." Santorum attacked the idea of women working and was embarrassed when Wallace showed film clips of his flip-flopping on trade issues and budget-balancing. Johnson wanted Medicare cut by half and complained that no one seemed interested in asking him questions.

Cain, asked about his plans for Afghanistan, said he had none. He also said President Obama's position on gay marriage "borders on treason." And he added that all foreign aid, including aid to Israel, should be eliminated. But he did get among the biggest cheers of the night when he said: "I ask people ... how's (government) working for you? We have a mess!"

So it ended. Cut to Frank Luntz, the Fox pollster, working with a focus group of 29 South Carolinians. Who won? Cain. Almost everyone, admitting they had never heard of him before, said Cain. Why? They all said he didn't sound like a politician, which was true enough. "This is unprecedented," said Luntz, almost hysterically -- in the before-the-debate poll, only one person had named Cain. The others assumed he must be a plant, maybe the guy's brother-in-law.

There must have been hysteria in the Fox control room as well. What the hell is going on here? As Luntz jumps up and down --"unprecedented!" -- they cut him off and go to Sean Hannity, sitting with Pawlenty, the most "serious" of the Fab Five. Mumbling Washington talk, they pretend that Cain does not exist. Sitting alone in my living room, I am almost in tears, laughing. This is almost as good as "The King of the Gypsies."

Hello, Young Republicans, wherever you are. You have a problem. You have no persuasive candidates so far. The default candidate is Romney, the father of Obamacare. The mystery candidate, if he runs, is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Romney's fellow Mormon and Obama's ambassador to China. And then the winner has to pick one of these wackos as a running mate.