Unlike Obama, Cain initially wasnít the preferred choice for rank-and-file activists, who lined up first behind Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and then Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Cain would never have been given the opportunity to emerge as an alternative to Romney on the right if Perry, in particular, had a successful campaign launch. But when Perry stumbled, conservatives looked around for someone else other than Romney whom they could rally around, and they found Cain.
Obama created his candidacy out of nothing and didnít need someone else to fail before he was given a look by Iowa and then national Democrats.
While Obamaís race clearly was a significant factor in his appeal to core Democratic constituencies (blacks, liberals and younger voters), Cainís race wasnít a similar factor within the GOP. But thatís not to say that it is irrelevant either.
The thought of rallying behind a conservative African-American candidate for the Republican nomination undoubtedly is appealing to many conservatives, if only to prove to liberals and journalists that they arenít the racists they are often portrayed to be.
Just as important, many Republicans understand that black conservatives and conservative women drive Democrats up the wall. So supporting Cain is a way for conservative Republicans to get just an extra bit of satisfaction knowing how it rattles their opponents. (Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown once called Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas ďa shill and cover for the most insidious form of racism.Ē)
This isnít to suggest that conservatives are embracing Cain because he is black. Perennial African-American candidate Alan Keyes never made much of a splash during his presidential bids, and if Cainís race were such an important factor to Republicans, they would have embraced him before they flirted with Bachmann and Perry.
Still, Cain stands out in the current Republican field for his charisma, plain-speaking, business experience and, yes, his color. Itís part of who he is and of his appeal to conservatives. But if Cain were white, he might very well be where he is today given the performance of the rest of the GOP field and the desire of conservatives for an alternative to Romney.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.