Cain wows New Hampshire Republicans, though doubts remain

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 12, 2011 

CONCORD, N.H. — Herman Cain, the newest star of the Republican presidential field, basked Wednesday in the cheers of New Hampshire GOP lawmakers, activists and new supporters in the political heart of the nation's first primary state.

But insiders also stressed that they were hardly convinced that the Georgia businessman, virtually unknown and deep down in Republican polls only a month ago, has staying power.

"I'm very impressed with his performance," said state Rep. Michael McCarthy, R-Nashua. "But he doesn't have the experience I'm looking for."

Others questioned the political viability of Cain's 9-9-9 plan, which would replace the current federal tax system with 9 percent flat rates for business and individual income, and add one for sales. New Hampshire has no sales or income tax, and most voters here are adamant that things should stay that way.

Cain noted Wednesday that his plan would have no effect on state taxes, but some New Hampshire Republicans shuddered at the idea of trying to sell new 9 percent taxes.

"I can't do that," said state Rep. Jerry Bergevin, R-Manchester. "The 999 bill sounds good, but it will never pass," added state Rep. James Belanger, R-Hollis. "Eighty percent of the people in Congress now will still be there."

But Cain, in an energetic 10-minute address to the state House of Representatives, did leave an impression with the state capital's political crowd.

"I'm intrigued," said state Rep. Lyle Bulis, R-Littleton.

Cain's self-deprecating humor was a particular hit. He acknowledged that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney remained the front-runner in the state. Romney also tops recent national polls.

An Oct. 3-7 Gallup survey of 1,064 likely Republicans and GOP-leaning independents had Romney up 20-18 percent over Cain, with a 4 percentage-point margin of error. An Oct. 7-10 survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, gave Cain a 30- to 22-point national lead; it had an error margin of 4.5 percentage points

However, in the Public Policy Polling poll, Cain got solid commitments from just 30 percent of supporters; 70 percent said they still might back someone else.

Cain is aware of his shaky status, and he appealed for Romney's supporters to give him a look.

"Many of you don't support him. I'm asking for your vote," Cain told the legislators. "For those of you who do support him, I'm asking you to reconsider."

Cain later told a Concord news conference that he'll expand his campaign dramatically. "We will be very, very competitive," he said, in New Hampshire and Iowa, the site of the nation's first presidential nominating caucus.

His Atlanta-based campaign will have field offices in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, four key early-voting states. As Cain put it, "we are now going to ramp up."

Romney's camp professes to be unworried. It endured a similar surge about six weeks ago, soon after Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race and quickly climbed to the top of most national polls, only to plummet after a series of weak debate performances.

This time, Romney senior strategist Stuart Stevens said, "it doesn't surprise me that the two guys running at the top are business guys." Romney spent most of his life in high finance and Cain was the CEO of Godfather's Pizza.

Perry's forces also are trying to paint Cain as a short-term phenomenon. Top adviser David Carney, like most independent analysts, sees the Republican race eventually coming down to Romney, the favorite of the mainstream GOP establishment, versus a single more conservative alternative.

Carney urged patience. "We've only been in the race nine weeks. We have a long way to go," he said. Perry is to unveil his energy plan Friday at a steel plant in West Mifflin, Pa.

Wednesday, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson were received warmly in their speeches to New Hampshire legislators.

But Cain brought the crowd to its feet.

"You know you must be doing something right when you get a lot of arrows in your back," he said, referring to his rivals' sharp criticism of him at Tuesday night's debate.

Cain smiled: "This is the first time the arrows have felt really good."

No political experience? "I don't propose what can pass," he said. "I propose what can solve the problem." Another big applause line.

His 9-9-9 plan is unfair to the poor? No, it gives people more money to spend, he said. "Like this great state," he said, "we as a nation must decide to live free or die."

And don't call him the flavor of the week. "Haagen-Dazs black walnut tastes good all the time," he said.

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