Analysis: The Herman Cain sideshow

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 21: Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks with the news media after unveiling his 'Opportunity Zone' economic plan in front of the Michigan Central Station, an abandoned train depot, October 21, 2011 in Detroit, Michigan. Cain has reportedly proposed changes to his '9-9-9' tax plan to exempt taxes for those living at or below the poverty line and businesses investing in 'Opportunity Zones'
Bill Pugliano/Getty Image
All over this website - all over every news website - you'll find stories about Herman Cain and the Great Alleged Sexual Misconduct Imbroglio. In addition to detailing the latest revelations and the ugly finger pointing, many are asking: Is this story going to sink the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination?

It's the wrong question. That's because, no matter what the polls say, Herman Cain is not the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. His candidacy is at best a long-shot and at worst a sideshow, a bit of late-fall entertainment before the serious business of electing a president begins in earnest.

It's true that polls show Cain -- thanks in large part to his engaging personality -- leading the field of Republican presidential contenders. But so what? Most Americans are far from tuned into the race at this point: A Pew poll last month found that nearly half of Americans can't even name a single candidate seeking the nomination. In December 2007, Gallup showed Rudy Giuliani leading the field, followed by Mike Huckabee. The eventual winner, John McCain, was tied for third - with Fred Thompson. 

With the race so fluid, it doesn't much matter which candidate is in first in November. What matters is who can make a late sprint to the finish line as voters head to the polls in January.

And the most important factor in deciding who can make that sprint is money - both what can be raised by the candidate and what can be expected to come in from outside groups like American Crossroads, which are expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2012 cycle. Without the money to run ads, build in-state networks and pay for a complex campaign operation, a candidate can fade over the long haul despite seeming to have won the hearts of many of his party's voters - just ask Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 before fading from view as his rivals outspent him into oblivion.

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have that money, thanks to the big donors that Romney has locked up in the Northeast and Perry has long cultivated in Texas. Herman Cain does not, the spike in donations he saw in the wake of the sexual misconduct story notwithstanding. Even if Cain can take the Iowa caucuses, his lack of a fundraising network means he'll have a hard time slugging it out with Romney and Perry in later states.

And it's not just about how much Cain has raised - it's about what the Republican establishment thinks of him. While Republicans have been extremely generous to Cain in their public comments - a stance attributable to just how much Republican primary voters seem to like the guy - behind closed doors most simply don't see him as a viable nominee. And that means the outside groups poised to spend heavily on the race, and the establishment Republicans who still play a large (if waning) role in deciding the nominee, aren't going to get on board the Cain train

The reason is the candidate himself, who seems to be doing everything he can to prove that he doesn't belong in the top tier in which he now finds himself. For starters, he simply doesn't seem all that serious about winning: Instead of cultivating Iowa and New Hampshire voters, he's largely ignored the states as he has traveled the country selling his book, often in states that don't go to the polls until March. He's also done little to build up the sort of get-out-the-vote operation in the early states that most Republicans see as a no-brainer. (Cain's campaign says Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-linked group to which Cain is linked, is serving an organizational function, but the group's impact remains to be seen.)

Even more important has been Cain's inability to address basic policy questions, maintain clear and consistent positions or effectively handle the slings and arrows that come with running for president. This is a presidential candidate who has shown a startling lack of foreign policy knowledge, displayed most recently when he suggested that China does not yet have nuclear weapons. He seemed unprepared to respond when Democrats and Republicans alike pointed out that his vaunted 9-9-9 plan meant a tax increase for most Americans. He has made confusing and contradictory statements on abortion, a border fence and a host of other issues. And his disastrous handling of the sexual misconduct storyhas shown him to be ill prepared to deal with the inevitable stumbling blocks ahead. For a Republican establishment that wants desperately to defeat President Obama next year, he simply doesn't look like a very good bet.

This isn't to say that Cain can't win the nomination. But he would need Perry, who has started to run ads in Iowa, to screw up badly enough to make his huge money advantage irrelevant. As for Romney, there's no doubt that Republican primary voters have serious misgivings about the formerly-moderate Massachusetts governor. But thanks in part to Cain's headline-gobbling antics, Romney has been able to keep his head down, continue raising money, and do the boring work of positioning himself to the nomination largely outside the spotlight.

So feel free to enjoy this week's soap opera - it's certainly been the sort of entertainment that political news sites depend on for the web traffic they need to pay the bills. Just don't confuse it with a serious discussion of who will be the Republican presidential nominee. The odds-on favorite to face off with President Obama next November is Romney. His biggest threat, by far, is Perry. No matter what the polls and the headlines suggest, Cain, along with the rest of the field, is on the outside looking in.

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