In Surprise Twist, Cain Endorses Gingrich

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Matt Rourke / AP

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker, meets with supporters during an event at The PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012, in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Former presidential candidate Herman Cain endorsed Newt Gingrich on Saturday night, giving Gingrich a much-needed boost just two days before Florida’s pivotal Jan. 31 primary.

“Surprise, surprise!” Cain told a packed crowd at a Palm Beach County Republican Party fundraiser, pumping his fists as he strode onstage. “I hereby officially and enthusiastically endorse Newt Gingrich for President of the United States.”

The endorsement is a welcome jolt of momentum for Gingrich, whose campaign has sputtered this week under a barrage of attacks from Mitt Romney. After a commanding victory in South Carolina, Gingrich headed into the Sunshine State contest with a head of steam. But Romney’s strong debate performances this week and an unrelenting ad assault has halted Gingrich’s momentum and pushed Romney back into the lead. A series of polls in recent days show the former Massachusetts governor carrying a near double-digit lead into the final days of the winner-take-all contest.

It’s unlikely Cain’s backing will do much to close the gap. Despite the demise of his presidential bid, Cain remains a Tea Party darling, and his backing will deflect attention Sunday from Gingrich’s slide in the polls. It also reinforces the outsider’s image — risible though it may be — that Gingrich has sought to create. But most of Cain’s followers have already drifted to Gingrich since his exit, raising questions about whether the endorsement will help sway many new voters.

The former pizza executive and erstwhile Republican front-runner dropped out the nomination fight in December amid intensifying scrutiny over allegations of an extramarital affair and reports of sexual harassment. The episodes cut short Cain’s unlikely insurgent bid for the presidency, which flourished thanks to deep Tea Party support before foundering as GOP voters became convinced that he lacked the policy chops for the Oval Office.

“Speaker Gingrich is not afraid of bold ideas,” Cain said, before drawing a parallel between Gingrich’s travails and Cain’s own. “I also know that Speaker Gingrich is running for president and going through this sausage-grinder — I know what this sausage-grinder is all about. I know he is going through this sausage-grinder because he cares about the future of the United States of America.”

For his part, Gingrich said he would ask Cain to contribute to an economic commission, suggesting that the U.S. hadn’t heard the last of Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan. Gingrich was considered the likeliest beneficiary of a Cain endorsement, even if that is hardly considered a plum prize among the faction of the GOP that considered Cain’s candidacy an embarrassment. The pair have ties dating back to the 1990s, when they worked together to oppose Hillary Clinton’s proposed health-care reform plan. “I’m honored to have Herman’s support, and I look forward to working with him to help put the American people back to work,” Gingrich said.

Gingrich must still jockey for the movement’s votes with Rick Santorum, who will take a detour from the campaign trail Sunday night after admitting his youngest daughter to a Philadelphia-area hospital with health problems. “Rick intends to return to Florida and resume the campaign schedule as soon as is possible,” said Hogan Gidley, Santorum’s spokesman, in a statement to reporters.

An immaculate showman, Cain had periodically teased the prospect of an endorsement. He pretended to reveal which candidate he had selected last week during a press conference in Charleston, S.C., choosing “We the people,” a gimmicky move that elicited widespread mockery. Finally, he has picked his person. But it is likely far too late to matter.

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