By Justin Sink - 10/30/11 07:18 PM EDT
Herman Cain will be in Washington Monday in the hopes of parlaying his grassroots success into GOP establishment support and serious treatment by the media and political class.
The week represents the start of a reboot effort by Cain's presidential campaign, which, despite maintaining a foothold on top of the polls, has spent much of the past two weeks playing defense.
His stops in the nation’s capitol will represent an important pivot point, demonstrating either a readiness for prime time under the glare of the national press corps, or, alternatively, the beginning of the end for the latest "flavor of the month."
And those are just the substantive policy-based troubles that Cain has grappled with.
There were questions about how seriously he was taking his campaign after he described a web video featuring top aide Mark Block smoking as “hilarious.” He was also hurt by an article in the New York Times, which described his campaign as disorganized, poorly staffed, and struggling under the weight of expanding expectations. Then the Associated Press found that Block has a past troubled by allegations of broken election laws and drunken driving arrests.
But all the negative attention doesn’t seem to have seriously injured Cain’s campaign — at least not yet. The relatively weak Republican field and Tea Party skepticism of frontrunner Mitt Romney has left a void Cain is only too happy to fill.
And fill it he has.
He remains on top of the polls and there were reports he raised $1 million a week for the month of October. And, on Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported Cain brought in nearly $2 million within the last week alone — right after the web video of Block smoking went viral. By contrast, Cain only brought in $2.8 million over the entire third quarter.
Among Cain's planned events in Washington on Monday is a discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative economic think-tank, about the merits of his 9-9-9 plan. The tax proposal, which would replace current federal taxes with a 9 percent corporate, sales, and income tax, has come under fire from conservatives — who argue that a national sales tax would be easily exploitable by future generations — and liberals, who argue the plan is highly regressive and unlikely to generate enough revenue.
Cain has insisted the rapid-fire and antagonistic style of the Republican debates have not given him the "opportunity to explain 9-9-9 without six attacks at the same time, if you know what I mean."
But the AEI discussion should give him a chance to sell the viability of the plan to establishment conservatives who can help legitimize the proposal within the Republican Party. One panelist who will be questioning Cain, William Gale of the Brookings Institution, has said that Cain needs to prove that tax cuts can stimulate economic growth.
"Tax policy is full of these Utopian ideas that have never been tried, but everyone's promising that their idea is going to make the difference," Gale told NPR. "And I just don't see it."
From AEI, Cain will travel to a luncheon at the National Press Club where he is expected to speak on how his executive experience makes him uniquely qualified for the presidency.
But Cain is likely to receive tough questioning from the assembled press corps about how his campaign has struggled to translate a business philosophy into a national presidential campaign, and to respond to the Times' report that he showed "ambivalence toward basic campaign management, which led to problems in hiring, scheduling, fund-raising and messaging."
Cain staffers hope that strong performances at the event, coupled with a new schedule that gives Cain more time to rest and study emerging campaign issues, could prevent additional self-inflicted injuries and keep their candidate viable heading into January's primaries and caucuses.
“We’re trying to slow down a little bit, make sure he’s rested, make sure he’s focused,” J.D. Gordon, the campaign’s vice president for communications, said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
But Gordon said that Cain's off-the-cuff style was part of the candidate's appeal, and that he didn't see voters punishing him for early mistakes made as part of a grueling schedule.
"When you do that and don’t use a Teleprompter, sometimes you can make a mistake…People understand he’s not a career politician; he’s very spontaneous, they know how fast he’s going," Gordon said. "People give him more leeway than they would someone who’s in Congress or a governor.”