CONCORD, N.H. -- For a self-described amateur, Herman Cain is awfully adept at telling a roomful of professional pols exactly what they want to hear.
He did it Wednesday from the speaker's rostrum of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, a raucous and generally conservative body of 400 souls who leap to cheer whenever someone vows to defend gun rights.
Well, Cain did, and they did.
The morning after standing in the spotlight -- not always to his benefit -- in the Republican candidates' debate at Dartmouth College Tuesday night, Cain joined a parade of other contenders invited to give 10-minute pitches to what is quaintly known as the General Court, where, currently, the Republicans dominate the ranks.
With the practiced ease of the pizza salesman, corporate CEO and talk show host he once was, Cain wowed the multitudes with a gusto that none of the other GOP contenders who spoke -- Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann -- could match.
Cain's syntax is a little muddled and his Georgia accent can be confounding to Yankee ears, but his message was clear as a bell: I know how to boil down and sell -- like so many 12-inch pepperoni pies -- the GOP's low-tax, no-government, no-regulation orthodoxy. I know how to speak to middle America. What I did for pizza I can do for policy.
Cain was forced to concede what had been revealed the previous night at Dartmouth: that his prime piece of policy packaging, his "9-9-9" tax plan, was controversial at least and a very tough sell.
"I have the arrows in my back to prove it," he said proudly. "That means I must be doing something right."
Not really. The third "9" is the third rail of GOP politics: a national sales tax. Suggesting that is bad enough; suggesting it while not simultaneously vowing to get rid of income taxes altogether is anathema to conservatives.
Shrewdly though, Cain didn't spend any time picking the arrows out of his back. Instead he reeled off a litany of other Reaganesque one-liners, which partook of the Gipper's urgent optimism and homily-infused style. Cain's riffs had the crowd laughing, then clapping, then standing on its feet cheering.
The imagery wasn't always artistic. Reagan's famous vision of America as a "city on a hill" had "slid down the hill," Cain said. Now it was time to put it "back on top of the hill." But everyone got the idea.
He dabbled in a few semi-specifics, while giving off an air (whether accurate or not) that he knew the issue down at least a few more layers than he had time to explain. (It's a knack Rick Perry hasn't learned). Cain touted his "Chilean model" plan to allow younger Americans to choose private savings plans instead of Social Security. On immigration he suggested tough enforcement measures and promised to "empower the states" to deal with the problem -- a states' rights applause line that worked, even though paying for immigration control is probably the last thing that most state legislatures and governors really want to do.
On foreign policy he vowed to "stop funding our enemies" and bring "clarity" to our policies. Henceforth Cain would only raise Cain on behalf of our friends, notably, he said, Israel. That's not an applause line at the U.N., but it is in the New Hampshire legislature, where the U.N. is seen by some as an agent of world socialist government.
Winding up with a Granite State flourish, Cain reverently recited the words in the Declaration about the rights the Creator endowed us with, and noted that the Founders had said "among them" were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And "among them" meant that the Founders were thinking -- of course -- of the Second Amendment, even though that wasn't written till later.
That brought the house down and the crowd to its feet. Here was a black man from Georgia -- who says that he was "po' before he was poor" -- crossing up all the old cultural stereotype by sounding like a North Country hunter in orange overalls. They loved it.
Cain evidently was born with a knack for political jujitsu, because he is very good at it even though he hasn't had much training. Rather than avoid talking about his lack of political experience, he touts it -- and he might be right to do so, given the American public's deep disgust for Congress, the political process and even, in some quarters, the president.
"I am the ONLY candidate in this race who has NEVER been a politician!" he proclaimed, as if this was some sort of deliberate, planned achievement. "I have NEVER held public office! And that means I am NOT afraid to engage the American people."
And in an even more adept move, he argued that the "9-9-9" plan's slim chances of ever becoming law was what made it -- and him -- so great. "Since I'm not a politician, I don't propose things just because I think they can become legislation! I propose things because they are RIGHT!"
And then came the climax, which, of course, was a reading from the Book of Ron, Chapter 1, Verse 1-2. Just as the Gipper had warned, Cain said, his voice lowering into crisis mode, our very freedom was at stake, And as Reagan had told us, "freedom is never more than a generation away from extinction." It is up to each of us to protect it for our "grandkids."
Finally, the New Hampshire close, the kind that every Granite-Stater, and every legislator, Democrat or Republican, loves to hear and honor, at least in public. In 1809, retired war hero Nathan Stark of New Hampshire, a general in the Revolutionary War, had given a benediction with these words. "Live Free or Die" Stark had declared, and so, now, did Herman Cain.
Standing ovation for the most political non-politician I have ever seen.
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