CBS's Dickerson: Herman Cain Needs to 'Moderate the Jester Act'

CBS political analyst John Dickerson might have stepped too close to calling GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain a minstrel on Tuesday's Early Show: "Now that he [Cain] is a top-tier candidate...he probably has to moderate the jester act a little bit, and show that he can...be seen by voters as a president." Dickerson was replying to Cain's recent controversial remark about an electrified border fence [audio available here].

Anchor Erica Hill brought on the political analyst to preview the next Republican presidential debate, scheduled for later in the day in Las Vegas. She raised the electric fence issue towards the end of the segment, and cited a new CNN poll which has Cain "running, really, almost neck and neck with Mitt Romney." She then asked Dickerson, "How is this going to affect him in how he deals with this question of illegal immigration moving forward?" [video clip below the jump]

The CBS personality acknowledged the former businessman's appeal with the GOP base, but soon dropped his borderline critique of Cain:

DICKERSON: One of the things voters love about Herman Cain is he's not incredibly polished. He's funny; he says, you know, there needs to be more humor in a presidential campaign. Who can disagree with that? But now that he is a top-tier candidate and is being looked at seriously, he probably has to moderate the jester act a little bit, and show that he can, in fact, be seen by voters as a president. But for his core supporters, when he says things that might be amusing, or sort of tells everybody they should lighten up, that only makes them like him more.

Earlier in the segment, Dickerson questioned the significance of Romney's Mormon faith in his outreach with evangelical voters: "They don't like his switching of positions on abortion; they don't like his previous support for gay rights...So there are a lot of other reasons not to like him, and the number of people who would not vote for him because of Mormonism is probably a lot smaller than that larger group of evangelicals."

The full transcript of the segment from Tuesday's Early Show, which began nine minutes into the 7 am Eastern hour:

ERICA HILL: And with us now, CBS News political analyst John Dickerson, who is in Las Vegas, which is, of course, the location of tonight's GOP debate. John, good to have you here. These new e-mails slamming Mormonism- what do they do to Rick Perry at this point and, essentially, to the rest of the candidates?

[CBS News Graphic: "Romney's Mormon Moment: Perry Supporters Raise Romney's Religion"]

John Dickerson, CBS News Political Analyst | NewsBusters.orgJOHN DICKERSON: Well, it doesn't really help Rick Perry at all. His campaign is in a hole. He's had some bad debate performances, and conservatives are confused about some of his positions, particularly on immigration. What he needs to do is build him- get himself out of that hole, and hurting Mitt Romney doesn't really help with that. He needs to reintroduce himself to voters, explain why he's a conservative that they like, and to the extent that this story or any other story distracts from that- that's not good for Rick Perry.

HILL: How important is religion when it comes to the eventual Republican candidate here? Because, while there's a lot of talk about the importance of the evangelical vote, there is also a very strong Mormon vote in this country. A lot of people are practicers- follow the Mormon faith, and they tend to vote pretty conservative.

DICKERSON: Well, that's right. Well, as Jan [Crawford] mentioned, in South Carolina and Iowa, 60% of those who participate in the caucus and the primary say they're evangelical. The question is, for how many of those voters is this issue of Mormonism a single issue that would make them throw Mitt Romney overboard?

You know, there are a lot of reasons evangelicals don't like Mitt Romney. They don't like his switching of positions on abortion; they don't like his previous support for gay rights; they don't like his position on health care in Massachusetts. So there are a lot of other reasons not to like him, and the number of people who would not vote for him because of Mormonism is probably a lot smaller than that larger group of evangelicals.

HILL: John, let's take a look at these comments that Herman Cain made over the weekend about building that fence, an electric fence. He is- according to this new CNN poll- now running, really, almost neck and neck with Mitt Romney. How is this going to affect him in how he deals with this question of illegal immigration moving forward?

[CBS News Graphic: "GOP Showdown: Previewing Tonight's Debate"]

DICKERSON: One of the things voters love about Herman Cain is he's not incredibly polished. He's funny; he says, you know, there needs to be more humor in a presidential campaign. Who can disagree with that? But now that he is a top-tier candidate and is being looked at seriously, he probably has to moderate the jester act a little bit, and show that he can, in fact, be seen by voters as a president. But for his core supporters, when he says things that might be amusing, or sort of tells everybody they should lighten up, that only makes them like him more.

HILL: When it comes to the debate tonight, it's interesting- there have been a couple of articles over the last few days about this renewed interest in debates. They're getting pretty significant audiences of people tuning in. And yet, some also talk about debate fatigue. We've had a number of them at this point. How important- how relevant are they to this conversation for the candidates?


DICKERSON: Well, they're quite popular in Republican circles because Barack Obama is gathering Republicans and making them enthusiastic about finding a replacement for him. Also, Republicans aren't certain about the field out there. They're shifting between candidates. These debates have been quite important. Remember, Tim Pawlenty, now out of the race, had a bad moment at a debate. Michele Bachmann announced her campaign at a debate, and that kind of gave her a little rise in the polls. Rick Perry, as we talked about, has gone down, in part, because of his performance at these debates. So they've actually been quite important. In previous races, they haven't changed things, but in this one, debates have been important.

HILL: And we'll be watching tonight. John Dickerson in Las Vegas for us this morning- John, thanks.

DICKERSON: Thanks, Erica.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center