MELISSA BLOCK, host: Mitt Romney has been at or near the top of most polls since the campaign began, but he's generally had company in the top tier. For a while this summer, it looked like Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann was a contender. Then Rick Perry announced he was running and shot to the head of the pack. Now, Romney's chief rival is businessman Herman Cain. NPR's Ina Jaffe is at the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, and she reports that while Romney is popular, many of the activists there are still looking around for another option.
INA JAFFE: Mitt Romney may be the presumed front-runner, but many of the die-hard Republicans gathered in the marble-tiled halls of the Venetian Hotel merely mentioned his name as one on their short list of candidates who interest them - or not even that.
CHUCK MUTH: I'm a Newt-Cain-Perry-Ron Paul guy.
JAFFE: That's Chuck Muth, the head of a Las Vegas conservative organization called Citizen Outreach. He says that many of the conservatives who make up the bulk of Republican primary voters just don't feel that Mitt Romney is one of them.
MUTH: If Romney is the nominee, we'll be there for him. But if we can possibly get somebody who we believe is a stronger conservative, we'd rather have that.
JAFFE: Right now, the candidate who's leading that category is Herman Cain.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
JAFFE: Cain addressed the conference the day after the debate.
HERMAN CAIN: Thank you for that nice warm welcome. Wow.
JAFFE: Cain is known for his optimism and blunt speaking, and both were on full display during his talk.
CAIN: Stupid people are ruining America.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)
CAIN: But the good news is we can outvote them. We can.
JAFFE: The role of chief Romney alternative was previously filled by Texas Governor Rick Perry until some bad debate performances eroded his support. At Tuesday's debate, he was clearly trying to regain his former position by aggressively attacking Mitt Romney, calling him a hypocrite and refusing to let him respond.
(SOUNDBITE OF MEDIA BROADCAST)
MITT ROMNEY: I'm looking forward to finding your facts on that because that just doesn't...
Governor RICK PERRY: I'll tell you what the facts are...
ROMNEY: Rick, again - Rick, I'm speaking.
PERRY: You had the - your newspaper - the newspaper...
ROMNEY: I'm speaking. I'm speaking.
JAFFE: The next day, conference attendees mulled over Perry's performance at a cocktail reception in the Garden of the Gods in Caesars Palace. The location isn't really relevant to the activity of choosing mortal candidates, but it's fun to say. In any case, most of the reactions to Perry's debate performance were along the lines of yikes, what was that?
NICK PITSON: Perry just totally dug his own grave.
JAFFE: Nick Pitson is from Salt Lake City.
PITSON: I felt like his demeanor at the debate was very - kind of petty and cheap.
JAFFE: Pitson likes Romney and Herman Cain. And it's not just Cain's famous 9-9-9 tax plan that appeals to conservatives. Wendy Bidwell of Baltimore compares Cain's appeal for Republicans to Barack Obama's appeal for Democrats four years ago.
WENDY BIDWELL: He definitely is extremely likeable. He has a lot of charisma. He really makes you feel that he really is going to do everything he can to do what he says he's going to do.
JAFFE: And Terry Turner of Salt Lake City says Cain's lack of political experience is a plus.
TERRY TURNER: His business experience and his lacking political experience in a way is almost impressive and intriguing because he doesn't have a great deal of political baggage such as Mitt Romney.
JAFFE: In other words, it's hard to go after Cain on his record. He has no health care plan to defend like Romney does. He hasn't backed in-state tuition for undocumented college students like Rick Perry has. But Cain does tend to shoot from the hip. And last night, while some of these conservatives were singing his praises, Cain was on CNN seeming to stake out a position on abortion that might have surprised them.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)
CAIN: It ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make, not me as president, not some politician, not a bureaucrat. It gets down to that family. And whatever they decide, they decide.
JAFFE: Then, again, Cain said in the same interview that he opposed abortion under any circumstance. And in a statement he put out today, he affirmed that he was 100 percent pro-life. So conservatives may be hunting for their ideal candidate for a while until the time comes when they just want to figure out which one has the best chance of defeating Barack Obama. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Las Vegas.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.