KATHLEEN PARKER: Cain’s smoking gun probably captured a key demographic

By Kathleen Parker

WASHINGTON – Herman Cain’s craggy-faced Chief of Staff Mark Block took a drag off a cigarette, blew smoke at the camera and sent the political class into coughing fits.
Theories about what Block intended have run the gamut from James Carville’s “He was drunk,”to amateurish campaigning, to post-modern genius. Me? I’m leaning toward accidental brilliance.
For those who missed it, and who therefore probably are not reading this, the ad is a 56-second clip of Block talking about his commitment to his candidate, not unusual in a chief of staff. He ends by taking the famous drag.
Did he just blow smoke in your face? Kind of, but he’s not just blowing smoke. He’s saying: “Don’t like me smoking? Tough.”
Odder than Block’s Marlboro-mannish toke was a final frame showing a tight shot of Cain looking at the camera with a “Here’s looking at you”expression that morphs into a beaming smile held somewhat longer than most people can manage without a twitch of self-consciousness. One nanosecond longer and you expect the smile to morph into something else. Hysterical laughter? Maniacal cackling?
The message in Cain’s strangely funny and wildly successful, viral campaign ad … hit a bull’s-eye right in the heart of a large demographic – older, bluer-collared voters who happen to be smokers, many of whom also resent the nanny state. What’s 50 million smokers times a $20 donation?
No one associated with the campaign is saying this, of course. In fact, Cain has denied any subliminal intent.
No observer of political theater wants Herman to stop being Herman, but to claims of innocence one must protest: Nein, nein, nein. Not to give too much credit where none may be due, but Cain is now too deep in the dough to plead, “But I’m just a pizza man.”
The ad succeeded precisely because the sight of someone smoking in a political clip was so jolting.
He’s also mining the widespread resentment of big government that has hit smokers hardest, casting them as pariahs and banishing them to the sidewalks.
One doesn’t have to smoke (I don’t) or sympathize with smokers to think the nation’s regulatory bureaucracy has become a bit thick.
Those who want to take this country back, as Block puts it in his smokin’ flick, may well have found a kindred spirit in Cain, whose previously low-budget, skeletally staffed campaign suddenly seems like a gold mine of blind luck. He’s blowing smoke rings around the competition in polling (24 percent to Romney’s 21 percent), and the cash is flowing at a rate of $1 million per week. If you view political campaigns as entertainment – and you may as well – Cain’s crazy ad was a lucky strike.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com. She writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.