GUY RAZ, host: Herman Cain, as well as Mitt Romney, spoke here in Washington this afternoon. The top two candidates in the Republican presidential race both addressed a conference for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. An ABC-Washington Post poll released today finds that Cain and Romney are running almost even among Republican voters. And NPR's Ari Shapiro reports now that the two speeches underscored the differences in the candidates' appeal to activists.
ARI SHAPIRO: Mitt Romney took the stage in an enormous ballroom of the Washington Convention Center, trying to warm up the crowd with a couple of jokes. One was about President Obama's job creation plan.
MITT ROMNEY: He keeps telling people, we can't wait, to which I say, yes, we can.
SHAPIRO: Compare that to the response the audience gave Herman Cain a few minutes later.
HERMAN CAIN: Before I get started, I want to know whose teleprompters are these, because I don't need them.
SHAPIRO: The teleprompters have been used by Mitt Romney, as the former Massachusetts governor spent about 30 minutes methodically laying out the steps he would take to balance the budget. He said his experiences in business, turning around the Olympics, and in the governor's mansion prove that he can fix the economy.
ROMNEY: When I get to the White House, hopefully, no one will need to teach me how to balance budgets. I've been doing that for 35 years.
SHAPIRO: He supports amending the Constitution, so Congress must pass a balanced budget every year, and he says he would save trillions by overhauling Medicare.
ROMNEY: The future of Medicare should be marked by competition, by choice and by innovation, rather than by bureaucracy, stagnation and bankruptcy.
SHAPIRO: Romney would give the next generation of Medicare recipients a sum of money and a variety of plans to choose from. The problem, according to budget expert Stan Collender, is that these kinds of changes are so unpopular that they'll never pass Congress. Collender is a former Democratic staffer on the House and Senate Budget Committees, now with Qorvis Communications.
STAN COLLENDER: We've already seen Republicans and Democrats in Congress, you know, ultimately don't go along with big, big changes in Medicare and Medicaid, such as the ones that he's proposing.
SHAPIRO: And Collender says what makes Romney's budget plan even more unrealistic is its reliance on a 4 percent growth rate for the U.S. economy.
COLLENDER: This is remarkably like, and analogous to, Michele Bachmann saying that she was going to make gasoline $2 a gallon without saying how she was going to get there from here. You can't just pick a number out of a hat and hope you're going to get there.
SHAPIRO: Romney also says he would cut the federal workforce by 10 percent, limit government salaries and consolidate some functions, because, as he put it...
ROMNEY: Look, too many chefs not only spoil the broth, they make it inedible and prohibitively expensive.
SHAPIRO: If Romney at times seemed to be a corporate executive at a board meeting received with warm applause, Herman Cain came on as a kind of conquering hero, greeted by standing ovations. The biggest came when he said how proud he is to know David and Charles Koch. They're the wealthy brothers who established the foundation that sponsored this conference and many other institutions of the conservative movement.
CAIN: I am the Koch brothers' brother from another mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
CAIN: Yes, I'm their brother from another mother and proud of it.
SHAPIRO: Cain did not mention the sexual harassment allegations that have dominated much of the campaign news this week. He did talk about his 9-9-9 tax plan, and he said foreign policy has to clarify who America's friends and enemies are. It was not a policy speech to match Romney's, but the audience didn't seem to mind. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.