WASHINGTON D.C. -- In a ballroom filled to capacity with conservative activists, the two front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination today put on the ultimate study in contrast.
Mitt Romney spoke first. Using a teleprompter, but not often seeming to need it, the former Massachusetts governor, in turnaround-expert-mode, displayed his usual command of both the issue of the day -- fiscal policy -- and of himself. He was measured, confident, and in control as he laid out a detailed plan to curtail government spending and rein in the federal deficit.
But with few exceptions, the audience here at this Americans for Prosperity conference was saving itself for someone else: the other national frontrunner -- the embattled Herman Cain, who bounded onto the stage to his campaign's new theme song, grabbed the crowd with both hands, and never let go.
Cain, who has ducked reporters all week amid accusations he sexually harassed two former employees more than a decade ago, seemed to relish the opportunity to be back in the spotlight on his own terms. He milked the audience for multiple standing ovations, and he tweaked the media for its collective fixation on the scandal and for his reported friendship with the billionaire Koch brothers.
The only mention Cain made to the recent headlines was a joke that he had gotten "a little bit of attention" during his week in Washington.
Instead, Cain touted his close ties to Charles and David Koch. "I'm very proud to know the Koch brothers," Cain said. "I am the Koch brothers' brother from another mother!"
This was Cain's last publicly scheduled event in Washington, DC, and his campaign will leave the nation’s capitol dealing with much different issues than when he first came here.
Aside from a brief trip up to New York City to meet with Henry Kissinger yesterday morning, Cain has been in DC all week. His events here have come with a subsequent media circus, and as more details about the story have emerged, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza has become subsequently tight lipped.
But with the media scrutiny has come a four-fold boost in fundraising, according the campaign. Since Politico first reported on the allegations of sexual harassment, the Cain campaign has $1.6 million, according to a press release from the campaign
But if Cain brought the sizzle, Romney came with steak. Building on remarks he gave last night in New Hampshire, and an op-ed in this morning's USA Today, Romney further expanded on his ambitious and wide-ranging plan to cut government spending and shrink the deficit.
The plan hinges on four major points.
The first is to cut spending at the federal level, quickly, and by as much as 5%, in large part by shrinking or eliminating discretionary programs that Romney sees as non-essential -- like the national endowment for the Arts, and the Corporation for Public broadcasting. Subsidies would be cut or eliminated for Title X family planning services like Planned Parenthood, and for Amtrak, the privatization of which Romney says could save $1.6 billion annually.
"I like Amtrak, but I'm not willing to borrow $1.6 billion a year to subsidize it," he said. "I like the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but I refuse to borrow almost $1 billion a year from China to pay for them."
The spending cuts would also include eliminating much, but not all, of U.S. foreign aid, particularly to countries Romney feels don't need it -- like China.
Repealing the federal health-care law, Romney argued, would also save billions, and be the "easiest cut of all."
"I will repeal Obamacare. This alone will save us $95 billion a year," Romney said, earning him a prolonged standing ovation. "It's bad law, bad policy, and when I'm president, the bad news of Obamacare will be over."
The second major tenet of Romney's plan would involve shifting control of a number of programs, including Medicaid and job retraining programs, back to the states. Romney said he would offer the states block grants for those programs, leaving each state with the option to serve their people as they see best, and moving as much as $100 billion off the federal government's books.
By giving the programs back to the states, "Innovation, cost management, and reduction of fraud and abuse can far exceed what Washington is able to achieve," Romney said.
The third part of Romney's plan is to "improve efficiency and effectiveness" in the federal government, by cutting waste, shedding federal jobs, and aligning federal worker compensation with that in the private sector. Romney campaign advisers believe this portion of the plan plays to Romney's strengths as a turnaround expert, and he cited his experiences both as a management consultant and at the 2002 Winter Olympics as examples of when he had successful put these types of precepts into action.
The final element of Romney's plan is likely to be the most controversial: reforming Social Security and Medicare.
In his speech, Romney proposed gradually raising the eligibility age for Social Security, and slowing the growth in benefits for those on the upper end of the income spectrum.
On Medicare, Romney proposed a plan similar to that put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan earlier this year, in which so-called "premium supports" would be provided to seniors, which they could use to purchase competing health care plans. Traditional Medicare would remain as an option as well.
Romney has been exceedingly careful to point out that any changes to entitlements would not affect those now using those programs and services, or those who would soon. It would be the next generation down the line to see any changes.
In his USA Today op-ed, Romney said he knew the perils of proposing such changes, but said the risk of doing nothing was even greater.
"What I propose will not be easy. Washington is full of sacred cows that supposedly can't be slaughtered and electrified third rails that allegedly can't be touched," he wrote. "But if we do not act now, the irresistible mathematics of debt will soon lead to unimaginable peril. With the downgrade of America's credit rating, we've gotten a taste of that bitter reality as we see the full potential of fiscal disaster playing out across Europe. We must turn around while we can."
Unsurprisingly, Romney's plan was quickly attacked from both sides of the aisle. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's campaign argued that Romney's grudging support for the 2008 financial bailouts undercuts his credibility on deficit spending, and President Obama's campaign released a memo this morning which said Romney's plan "would return American families to the failed economic policies that contributed to the years of rising inequality, stagnant wages, and eroding middle-class security."
Romney came prepared to defend his plan against such charges -- and those made by others that its cuts would be heartless and draconian -- by making the argument that cutting now is a "moral imperative."
"There are some who argue that fiscal responsibility is heartless and immoral. No, what is heartless is to imperil our children. And what is immoral is to imperil the strength of the nation that was founded "under God" and" preserved by His hand."