[Guest post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]
“I came as a Perry fan,” 42-year-old defense consultant David Hebert told me as he stood in a long line of Values Voter Summit attendees waiting to get their copies of This Is Herman Cain! autographed. “It would have taken a lot to shake me. But I changed my mind with that speech.” Judging from the frenzied hooting and high-five-your-neighbor reaction to Cain’s speech Friday afternoon, he was not the only one. (Straw poll results will be announced at 3 pm today, but I’d be surprised if Cain doesn’t win or come in a very close second to Rick Perry.)
The story from Day One of the Christian conservative powwow was not merely that Cain killed it and Perry underwhelmed. That was a foregone conclusion before either of them spoke—when Texas megapastor Robert Jeffress introduced Perry onstage, he tried to exhort the crowd with the unfortunate question, “Do we want a candidate who is skilled in rhetoric or one who is skilled in leadership?” (Confused applause.)
The bigger takeaway was this: Perry, the GOP frontrunner most attuned to the persuasions of right-wing Christian voters, completely blew his opportunity to win them over. His breathy, overwrought speech rambled from “You don’t spend all the money” to illegal immigrants “peddling poisons to our children” but hardly touched on the point of the whole event: family values conservatism. Instead it was Cain, not known for his religious views, and in fact targeted at the event by the National Organization for Marriage for not having signed a pledge of theirs (the other frontrunners have), who galvanized a ballroom full of Evangelicals and born-again Christians with rousing promises to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act and protect unborn children.
Perry went on at about 2:30 pm on Friday, accompanied by a thumping country anthem. The speaker who preceded Perry, Iowa Congressman Steve King, used his time to quote scripture and explicate the connections between Jesus’s teachings and the American founding. I expected Perry to continue in this vein. In fact, when he began his speech, “I’m … proud to be joined today by my best friend, somebody who has done more to enrich my life than any other person,” I was positive he was talking about Jesus. When he added that this “individual” would “be a fabulous first lady,” I began to have my doubts.
In his 25-minute speech, Perry didn’t completely ignore social issues, but he addressed them vaguely, saying things like the “most basic unit of governments is the family.” But as a man who two months ago led 30,000 Texans in prayer and has unabashedly defended state policies like abstinence-only sex education, Perry enjoyed a built-in connection with the audience his two main competitors didn’t. But somehow, Perry misread the crowd. After the speech, National Review Online columnist Kathryn Jean Lopez was a little incredulous, telling me, “I imagine the poor guy could have forgotten which event he was at.”
Cain did much better. Introduced by VVS emcee Gil Mertz as a man who “embodies the fulfillment of the American dream,” Cain went on at about 4:30 pm. For the next half-hour Cain’s energy never flagged, thundering proudly about his self-made success and earning standing ovation after standing ovation for lines like, “9-9-9 means jobs, jobs, jobs!”—referring to his famously regressive tax plan. And when he stepped out of his comfort zone to address social issues, he did so with the same fervor. “I believe in life from conception. Period. No exceptions,” he rhymed. Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, he said, depended on Life—“and that includes the life of the unborn.” He’d make sure, he bellowed above the din of the ballroom crowd, that the Department of Justice would enforce the Defense of Marriage Act.
It’s well known that Herman Cain enjoys public speaking, while Perry has appeared a bit flummoxed at the last two debates. But at the Values Voter Summit, the one-time front-runner lost out to Cain on both the message and the medium.