As Barack Obama mobilises his re-election campaign, the Republican base is for the first time excited about a black man running for president.

Not Obama, obviously, but former fast-food chain executive Herman Cain.

Cain was honoured with the keynote speech slot at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington over the weekend, and “knocked it out of the park” as the old white guy from Ohio sitting next to me put it.

Almost all the GOP presidential hopeful turned up to pander to the Evangelical Christian and Tea Party wings of the party. All except Newt Gingrich, who sent a video message, and Sarah Palin, who was busy re-writing American history on her One Nation tour. Mitt Romney continues to lead the polls, and Michele Bachmann seems the natural favourite for those outside the mainstream, while Cain has been painted as a “dark horse” (as he described himself)  that could bridge the party’s divide.

Cain’s ovation-ready speech was peppered with sound bites about Obama’s economic woes, Bible quotes and a strong defence of the Tea Party, which he said was falsely accused of racial prejudice.

The conservative crowd was so ready for Cain they even gave him a standing ovation a day before he arrived … to the only other black speaker at the conference who the #FFC2011 Twitter back-channel mistook for Cain.

Repeatedly described as a “natural-born conservative” (a dog-whistle to the Birthers), Cain fits the mould that Republicans want in a candidate on paper: business experience, Baptist faith, opposes all the social issues that progressive want. And most importantly, can’t be accused of racism.

The problem for Cain, and that unfortunate black speaker who shares little resemblance beyond skin colour, is recognition.

Adding CPAC and dozens of state conventions, Cain has almost complete the grand slam of conservative confab keynotes. This is pretty much the only strategy for gaining the nomination for someone who hasn’t held a senior public office or can’t spend Meg Whitman dollar figures on ads. But it’s also good PR for the party.

MSNBC has run almost daily accusation of racism at the Republican Party since it opposed the Obama-proposed health care reform last year. Every time a Birther was given air on Fox News and not shot down by the Republican leadership was cited as further evidence of a party-wide problem.

Even the relatively mild racial awkwardness surrounding Senator John McCain’s campaign against Obama in 2008 resulted in the Republican National Committee electing a black man as chairman for the first time in history. Michael Steele was turfed out of the role after just two years, having received little support within the party, and has now slunk off to be the whipping boy at MSNBC while all his predecessors took more plum jobs at Fox News and think tanks.

There can be no doubt Steele was used as a prop by the party to rebut claims of racism. Steele was good at accusing Democrats of focusing too much on skin colour, but wasn’t adept at defending his own party. While he wasn’t great at any of his other duties, it was failing that one that cost him his job.

In 2004, conservative stalwart and author Andrew Sullivan humoured to a Republican conference in Florida that he was missing the gay White Party dance in the same city to instead talk to the “really white party”. Nobody would dare make that joke today. It’s already apparent Obama may win the 2012 election on the back of his strong support among minority groups, despite high negatives among the white population.

Faith and Freedom Coalition president Ralph Reed knows the financial and electoral advantages of having the black churches on side, having previously been the brain behind the once majorly powerful Christian Coalition. Giving Cain the top slot at his conference has sent a powerful message not only to the potential voters, but also to the Republican party itself about reforming its “white only” strategy of winning elections.

Peter Fray

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