NEW ORLEANS - Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain got a rapturous reception at the Republican Leadership Conference on Friday, offering a speech that even included a seemingly impromptu return to the microphone to tell a cheering crowd of conservative activists, "I've been the dark horse candidate for the last year. How do you like me now?"
Cain, whose speech here last year was sparsely attended, has been a breakout candidate of the presidential cycle so far in part to his performance in the first Republican presidential debate. While he remains a long shot for the nomination, he was a clear crowd favorite here, even eliciting one shout of "Yes we can!" from a mostly-adoring audience. The slogan was a signature of President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign.
Cain, who is African-American, opened by saying, "I have a dream," an apparent reference to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that elicited laughs from the crowd. He said he actually had two dreams: First, for conservatives to have control of the House and Senate after the 2012 election, and second, "that you are looking at the next President of the United States."
"Look at him," Cain said, grinning, as the audience cheered wildly.
Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza and talk show host, noted that many in the conservative media establishment, including Bill O'Reilly, have dismissed his chances. He compared his candidacy to efforts by bees to fly despite a body not built for flight.
"I didn't get the memo that I'm not supposed to run," Cain said, later adding: "The people are going to elect the next President of the United States, not the media."
Asked his criticisms of the Republican Party in a conversation with reporters after the speech, Cain said the party "in the past has sometimes anointed who's turn it is" to be president.
The requirements, he said, include being a strong fundraiser and having held public office, neither of which Cain can claim.
"I would like to see the Republican Party not approach it in terms of the old traditional model," he said, adding: "The American people are the ones who are going to have the strongest voice this time around." (Cain was quick to note of his conservative critics: "I still like those guys.")
Cain called said America is currently living through a "national nightmare," complaining of a "deficiency of leadership crisis in the White House."
"Americans are tired of feeling like our president is apologizing around the world," he said, telling the audience that "when we put the right person in the White house - moi - America's exceptionalism will be obvious again."
Cain called for massive tax cuts in his speech, including reducing both the top corporate and individual income taxes to 25 percent from 35 percent and reducing the capital gains tax to zero from 15 percent, suspending taxes on foreign repatriated profits, providing a payroll tax holiday for every worker and business in America, and making all of those cuts permanent, with the exception of the payroll tax holiday.
Asked by Hotsheet after the speech whether he was concerned that those tax cuts would exacerbate the deficit and debt problem, Cain said he is "not concerned that it's going to leave a hole." In reference to the capital gains tax, he said "there's a wall between people with money and people with ideas."
Cain made reference to his humble origins in his address, saying, "I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth. We didn't even have a spoon to put in my mouth."
In comments to reporters afterwards, he said, "I guess because I'm black somebody thought I was gonna run as a Democrat. I left that plantation a long time ago and I'm not going back."
Cain defended his lack of foreign policy experience, saying he doesn't need such experience to know that "you don't need foreign policy experience to know your friends and your enemies."
He added that his doctrine is that messing with Israel is messing with America - a comment that drew boos from the Ron Paul supporters who were in the room for Paul's speech, which took place after Cain spoke. (Paul advocates drawing down the U.S. military presence around the world.) It was the only break with the enthusiastic reception for Cain at the conference.
Toward the end of his speech, Cain said "there is a sense of urgency for us to take this nation back."
He went on to say that the conservatives gathered there would not let President Obama take America down what he sees as the wrong path.
"The United States of America is not going to become the United States of Europe," he said to a standing ovation. "Not on our watch and not under President Herman Cain!"
More from the Republican Leadership Conference: