If Georgia businessman Herman Cain wins the presidency next year, he might mark his stunning straw poll win at a gathering of Colorado conservatives as a turning point in his campaign. And even if the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO doesn’t ascend to the highest office in the land, he’ll likely still savor the memory of his reception in Denver last weekend, when nearly 1,000 cheering audience members leapt to their feet with sustained applause after his speech and then proceeded to vote for the Republican in overwhelming numbers.
“I not only checked his name, I underlined it and put stars next to it,” said a buoyant Peter Carpenter, catching his breath in the lobby outside the ballroom at the downtown Marriott City Center on the afternoon of July 31 as the Western Conservative Summit neared the end of its three-day program. Carpenter, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., but spends summers in Colorado, had just gotten off the phone with a friend back home he said he simply had to call to rave about Cain.
“I loved him, I loved him, I loved him,” said Carpenter, who pegged himself an “ultra-conservative, to the right of Attila the Hun,” attributing that description to his late wife. “Everything Herman Cain said — I was standing up, going crazy. I had tears in my eyes.”
Carpenter wasn’t the only one swept away by Cain’s half-hour speech. Minutes later, summit organizers announced the reluctant African-American politician — Cain said he’d looked forward to retirement a couple years ago until the economy, and his faith in the country’s direction, took a dive — had scored a resounding victory in the event’s inaugural presidential straw poll. He garnered the support of nearly half of the 508 conservatives casting ballots, nearly four times the total of his nearest competitor.
The straw poll capped a long weekend filled with prayer, inspirational speeches, urgent warnings about the country’s future, and the presence of at least two other probable presidential candidates — former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, expected to announce he’s in the race later this month, along with former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who has dallied with a run and plans to state his intentions next month.
Sponsored by Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, the conference grew by about half since last year’s inaugural summit in Lone Tree, and again featured closing remarks by media personality Dick Morris. In addition, speakers included pollster Pat Caddell, pundits Tucker Carlson and Juan Williams, businessman and philanthropist Foster Friess, comedian Brad Stine, and columnist Cal Thomas, who led the chapel service on Sunday morning.
“The long night of liberalism in America is drawing to a close,” said former U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong as he adjourned the conference. Armstrong, who serves as president of the Lakewood-based Colorado Christian University, co-chaired the event with former Senate President John Andrews, who runs the school’s public policy think tank.
Although much of the discussion over the weekend was dire — foreign policy analyst Frank Gaffney, an unofficial advisor to presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, for instance, warned that the Muslim Brotherhood was infiltrating the highest levels of government with plans to impose Sharia law on U.S. citizens — the gathering sometimes had something of a carnival atmosphere against a backdrop of Gadson flags.
It took a while for some attendees to stop doing double-takes when Sarah Palin look-alike — or “celebrity tribute artist,” as she describes herself — Cecilia Thompson passed by, winking, pointing and giving everyone her thumbs-up. A gleeful Andrews even invited Thompson on stage Friday night shortly after Armstrong played a video of Palin talking up the Christian school during a recent visit.
But the proceedings mostly amounted to a string of relentless criticism of the country’s direction under Obama’s rule.
“We have a crisis of leadership in the White House, we have a president who is not qualified to lead us in national security,” said Bolton, who added, “It’s time we got a president less concerned about being a citizen of the world and more concerned about defending America.”
“Hope and change ain’t working,” thundered Cain from the stage. “I think the American people are ready for ‘hope and Cain’ — real leadership, real experience. It’s not too late, folks, and that simply means that all of us have to crank it up a notch.”
“Our federal government has grown well beyond its intended size and purpose so that it now threatens the liberties it was created to protect,” said Perry in his brief keynote speech.
At least one recent rift in the conservative movement was laid bare by a dust-up between Santorum and Perry over gay marriage and states’ rights.
“We have this issue before us today, and it’s within our party, and we need to talk about it,” said Santorum, who spoke about a half hour before Perry. “There’s some in our party who say, ‘If New York wants to pass same-sex marriage, it’s fine with me.’ Some who say, ‘I’m not going to get involved in what states do — it’s their business.’”
It was a jab at Perry, who told a group in Aspen last week that New York’s recent adoption of a law permitting gay marriage was “their business, and that’s fine with me,” though he clarified his remarks a few days later in a radio interview. “I said the other day that the 10th Amendment frees New York State to define marriage as they please, but the traditional definition suits Texas and this governor just fine,” Perry said.
But Perry’s elaboration wasn’t good enough for Santorum.
“States do not have the right to destroy the American family,” Santorum said from the stage. “It is not fine with me that New York has destroyed marriage. It is not fine with me that New York is setting the template that will cause great division in this country. There (are) not 50 definitions of marriage.”
Speaking to reporters after his speech, Santorum refused to retreat from his attack on Perry.
“He not only didn’t back away, he doubled-down,” Santorum said. “He said these are state issues — they are not state issues. These are issues that have universal implications in this country, they are institutions.”
Perry didn’t take questions from the audience or from reporters, instead departing the hotel accompanied by security personnel immediately after delivering his remarks.
The Republican presidential field has its first traditional test next week at the Ames, Iowa, straw poll, where full-throated opposition to gay marriage in that state has emerged as a defining issue.
About half way through the Colorado conference, former state Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams said he liked what he’d seen and thought the aggressively conservative message delivered at the summit would fire up Republicans without turning off voters in the middle.
“Both sides have to energize their base to win an election,” Wadhams told The Colorado Statesman. “From that standpoint, this is a very energized base, which is important. I think there could be a suppression of the Obama base, because there’s a lot of disappointment in him, so I think that’s key.”
He went on to say that the last GOP presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain “did not excite the base three years ago. Had Palin not been on that ticket, there would have been no excitement about that ticket whatsoever. We need the combination of a candidate who can energize the Republican base, but also appeal to unaffiliated voters, and we don’t know who that is right now.”
Wadhams declined to predict which Republican candidate might fill the bill. “This thing’s totally wide open,” he said. “Romney’s the front-runner, but it’s a very nominal status. I think this thing’s going to be very competitive. It’s going to go past Nevada — I don’t think it’s going to be decided in the first four contests.”
Still, he allowed, the candidate who appeals most to active conservatives might not be the best one to take on Obama in Colorado, a state the Democrat won by a wide margin in 2008 and is evenly divided between Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters.
“We need to nominate a candidate who can win unaffiliated voters to win this state, and that’s going to be the question for a lot of people, which candidate that is,” Wadhams said.
Unsurprisingly, the state’s chief Democrat offered a different review of the summit.
“While the American public is calling for Washington to work together and begin functioning again,” said Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio, “what we saw at the Western Conservative Summit was a continued drive toward divisiveness and ideological extremism from Republicans. The eventual Republican nominee will be captive to the extreme positions that the conservative base is concentrating on at these types of events.”
It’s too early to draw conclusions, said Denver County GOP Chairman Danny Stroud, who described the Republican presidential field as wide open.
“Right now, I think it’s still a jump ball,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s emerging as a great candidate yet. We have another 30 to 60 days before people start falling away and the leaders start to emerge. The question we have to keep asking ourselves is, which one can beat Obama.”
He said he thinks Romney, who dominated the Colorado caucuses in 2008, is still the front-runner in the state but added, “the other candidates are barking at his heels. He can’t rest on his laurels. If he wants the nomination, he’s going to have to work.” He said he’s seen evidence most of the major candidates are starting to gain steam in Colorado except for Bachmann, who has been invisible so far.
Colorado’s caucuses are scheduled for March 6, though state Republican officials have said they might consider moving them to Feb. 7, as state law allows, if other states move up their contests.
For his part, Cain doesn’t have much presence in the state either — he had to rely on Stroud to recruit a handful of volunteers to help direct traffic as he signed books — but that didn’t stop him from winning over the conservatives when he had the chance to speak to them directly.
Told by The Statesman he had swept the straw poll — with more votes than the next six candidates combined — Cain grinned with delight and said it was all going according to plan. Even though he has been registering in single digits in recent state and national GOP primary polls, Cain pointed out that his name recognition has shot up in the last month, and it’s still early.
“My path to victory is, quite simply, keep doing what we are doing,” he told The Statesman. “And what we are doing is connecting with the people with my message of common-sense solutions. We’re not going to be able to out-spend, but we will be able to out-work.”
Sizing up the primary calendar, Cain said he didn’t need big wins in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, but would rely on a slow-and-steady approach.
“Our goal is modest — to finish in the top three in the early states. If we do that, and I’m confident we are going to do that in many of them, then the momentum is going to continue to build.”
Then he returned to the ballroom, where conference organizers were just about to announce his overwhelming win. When a projected image showed big-name candidates taking tiny slices of the straw-vote pie — Romey pulled just 10 percent, behind Perry’s second-place finish with 13 percent — the crowd murmured with anticipation and then exploded as the magnitude of Cain’s win appeared on screen.
Cain bounded to the stage to bask in the cheers.
“Didn’t I tell you that the people are going to select the next nominee, and the people are going to select the next president of the United States?” he asked, and then added, “We’re not done yet.”