WASHINGTON, Michigan -- Many pundits predict that if Mitt Romney wins Tuesday's Republican primaries in Michigan and Arizona, the momentum will carry the former Massachusetts governor to a sweep of the Super Tuesday primaries a week later. But one veteran of the topsy-turvy 2012 campaign expressed doubts Thursday about any such prediction.
"Michigan matters," said Herman Cain, who ended his own bid for the GOP nomination in December. "There's no question about it -- Michigan definitely matters, and Super Tuesday's going to be critical."
Speaking to reporters after an event in Troy, where he appeared with Republican Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra, Cain considered two alternative scenarios for Super Tuesday on March 6, when nearly 200 delegates will be on the line.
"If it's a three-way split, get ready for a long process, folks," the Atlanta businessman said. "If one of [the candidates] gets the lion's share of those [Super Tuesday delegates], then you could start to see some movement in terms of who might be that presumptive [GOP nominee]. But I'm not anticipating that, and here's why: Go all the way back to Iowa. Iowa couldn't predict New Hampshire, New Hampshire didn't predict South Carolina, South Carolina didn't predict Florida. Florida didn't predict the places out west, Missouri and the others, and they're not going to predict Michigan or Super Tuesday. The electorate is still sort of all over the place."
The turbulent Republican primary campaign has seen many ups and downs, none more spectacular than Cain's. He made a meteoric ascent to the top of the field after winning a Florida straw poll in September, and moved ahead of Romney in October, only to tumble in November in the wake of several highly publicized sexual allegations that were never proven and which Cain still firmly denies. Despite the disappointing finish of his presidential campaign, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO remains popular with conservatives. Cain was greeted with a standing ovation when he was introduced Thursday evening at the American Polish Cultural Center in Troy, where he appeared with Hoekstra, whom polls show likely to win Tuesday's Michigan primary for the Senate race against Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
Cain has endorsed his fellow Georgian and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has suffered his own ups and down during the long Republican campaign. Gingrich made his own ascent to the top of the GOP field in late November, only to watch his lead in Iowa destroyed by a multimillion-dollar attack-ad blitz from Romney. After finishing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, however, Gingrich bounced back to beat Romney in South Carolina Jan. 21. But Gingrich was devastated by another Romney ad-blitz in Florida, stumbled through a badly disorganized campaign effort in Nevada, and fell out of contention in the Feb. 7 primaries and caucuses that saw former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum beat Romney in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. Low poll numbers and sagging fundraising would seem to indicate little hope that Gingrich can still challenge for the nomination, but his campaign clearly got a boost from a strong debate performance Wednesday in Arizona.
Cain offered his own assessment of the debate, which many expect will be the last such televised meeting of the GOP rivals: "Mitt Romney was on his A game. Newt Gingrich was on his A game. Santorum got hit pretty hard by Romney and Paul. And so I think the two that came out the strongest were Gingrich and Romney, in terms of the debate and what the takeaway was. Romney's still staying on an attack mode. Gingrich stayed on solutions, and people noticed it. [Gingrich] kept talking about the key issues, he kept talking about solutions, and I was happy to see that."
The impact of that debate hasn't yet been measured by polls, and the most recent poll in Michigan showed Santorum leading Romney by three percentage points. Both campaigns are making a strong effort here: Romney can ill afford to lose his home state, and Santorum's campaign is pushing hard in Michigan, the kind of industrial "Rust Belt" state where he hopes to benefit from his strong appeal to blue-collar social conservatives. While Cain greeted supporters after the Hoekstra event last night in Troy, a group of Santorum volunteers waited outside the Polish cultural center, handing out pamphlets, bumper stickers, and yard signs to those exiting the event. "They were 80 or 90 percent with us," one of the Santorum volunteers said of the largely Catholic audience. Santorum's schedule Friday in Michigan -- a parish fish fry and a rally at a Knights of Columbus hall -- suggests his campaign hopes that a strong turnout of Catholic voters will boost his chances Tuesday.
Should Santorum fall short here in Michigan, we can expect pundits once more to begin talking of Romney's "inevitability" as the Republican nominee. But when a reporter asked for a prediction of who will eventually win the nomination, Herman Cain answered with three simple words: "I don't know." And nobody else knows, either.