In 2008, Mitt Romney received a glowing endorsement from a popular talk-radio host.
“Mitt Romney’s leadership credentials offer the best hope of a leader with substance, and the best hope for a good president who could turn out to be great,” the talk-show host noted in an opinion column, pointing to Romney’s business background, Olympic leadership experience, and life largely spent outside politics.
That was Herman Cain, then doing an Atlanta-based talk-radio program.
According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, Cain and Romney currently lead the GOP field. In Facebook lingo, the two frontrunners have a “complicated” relationship. Beyond a doubt, Romney and Cain have the most extensive business experience of all the GOP candidates. They also both first ran for Senate and lost, although Romney won the GOP nomination. Romney has occasionally thrown a friendly word toward Cain; Cain, in turn, has more vigorously attacked Rick Perry (including announcing last week that he would not consider being the vice-presidential candidate on a Perry ticket) than he has Romney. Underlying their dynamic is a shared interest in seeing Perry lose support: Cain is directly competing with Perry for the not-Romney candidacy in the primary. From Romney’s perspective, Cain can reduce Perry’s support — and if Cain emerges as the main alternative to him, all the better.
Asked for public comment, neither campaign is effusive. “Governor Romney respects Mr. Cain and thinks real-world economic experience is an essential attribute,” says Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. A Cain aide is even more succinct, saying simply, “They get along well.”
Romney’s friendliness toward Cain has been particularly apparent in the debates. “Herman Cain and I are the two on the stage here who’ve actually worked in the real economy,” Romney argued during the August debate held in Ames, Iowa. “If people want to send to Washington someone who spent their entire career in government, they can choose a lot of folks. But if they want to choose somebody who understands how the private sector works, they’re going to have to choose one of us, because we’ve been in it during our career.”
In the September debate held in Tampa, Fla., Romney was quick to showcase his agreements with Cain on health care. “Herman Cain is right,” Romney said, answering a question about health care immediately after Cain had, “and let’s get back to getting the cost of health care down. I happen to think that’s an enormous issue. And I agree with almost everything you said, Herman, but the reason health care is so expensive, I think you hit the nail on head. You said it’s not just because of insurance, it’s because of the cost of providing care.” Discussing Obamacare in the debate held later last month in Orlando, Romney once again highlighted Cain in his response. “What you heard from Herman Cain is one absolutely key point, which is Obamacare intends to put someone between you and your physician. It must be repealed,” Romney said.
Cain, for his part, mentioned Romney first when talking about which fellow candidate he would most likely pick as vice president if he were the nominee. “If Governor Romney would throw out his jobs-growth plan and replace it with ‘9-9-9,’ he has a shot,” Cain said before going on to speculate about Newt Gingrich as another possibility.
But if Romney has largely held his fire so far, Cain has not been similarly reluctant. He has said that Romney’s business background is “Wall Street,” while his is “Main Street.” Asked by Jay Leno on the Tonight Show what he thought of Romney, Cain said, “Good hair.” In June, Cain told the Washington Times that Romney was hurt this cycle by having “an ankle bracelet on called Romneycare.” Noting that he had endorsed Romney in 2008 (“I like Mitt”), Cain pointed out that Romney hadn’t won the nomination and added, “I don’t think that he is going to be any stronger this time around, [against] Barack Obama, even though Barack Obama has a terrible record.”
His hesitation about Romney is nothing new. It’s true that Cain endorsed Romney in a glowing column in 2008. But that may have had more to do with what he thought of John McCain than what he thought of Romney. Cain disliked McCain’s record on taxes and immigration, among other issues.
Even more significant is how few mentions Romney earned in Cain’s weekly column during the election cycle. In a December 2006 column, Cain dismissed the GOP field as “as inspiring as Saturday’s leftovers for Monday’s lunch,” and, noting Romney, pointedly asked, “Where does he stand on the issues today?” In March 2007 column entitled, “Presidential Baggage Check,” Cain wrote, “Mitt Romney is a flip-flopper on the social issues; he’s Mormon; and his hair is too perfectly groomed.” Cain tackled Romney’s Mormonism in greater depth in a confusing October 2007 column titled, “Mitt Romney Is a Mormon and I Am a Baptist: Get Over It!” In the piece, Cain argued that Mormons shared religious beliefs with other Christians, including Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics. But he ultimately made the case not for accepting a Mormon candidate per se (“This is not an endorsement of Mitt Romney, nor is this intended to defend or explain the Mormon religion. It is a reminder that Christianity has several denominations with different practices.”), but for preferring a candidate who clearly had religious beliefs. “Since the First Amendment to the Constitution protects us from a president imposing his religious preference on the rest of us, I would rather have a president with some religion than one whose religion is suspect,” Cain wrote.
The final mention of Romney in the Cain columns from the previous election cycle is in a February 2008 column, in which Cain briefly notes that Romney “has gracefully ended Act One of the drama in the Republican presidential primary by suspending his campaign.” Over the course of that campaign, Romney got exactly five mentions by Cain, including the endorsement column — hardly the sign of an enthusiastic supporter. Significantly, Cain only endorsed Romney on February 4, 2008. Just days later, Romney officially ended his campaign.
So far, Romney has handled Cain’s sudden meteoric rise in the polls by continuing his friendly attitude. Asked on Fox and Friends last week what vulnerabilities Cain had, Romney refused to go that route, saying “Herman Cain’s a good man and I respect him. I’m not going to look at his vulnerabilities.”
But as the intensely negative back-and-forth between Romney and Perry in recent weeks has shown, Romney’s not afraid to attack when he feels threatened by another candidate. For Cain, the best sign that he’s a viable contender for the GOP nomination may not be a surge in the polls, but criticism from Romney.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.