Herman Cain and Mitt Romney, the two current front-runners in the Republican presidential race, spoke in Washington on Friday at a conference for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.
Their speeches came as a new Washington Post-ABC poll found they're running almost even among Republican voters. And on Friday, the two candidates underscored the differences in their appeal to activists.
When Romney took the stage, he tried to warm up the crowd with a couple of jokes. One was about President Obama's job creation plan: "He keeps telling people we can't wait, to which I say: 'Yes, we can.' "
The crowd's response? Some laughter and polite applause.
Cain got a much more enthusiastic response a few minutes later, when he cracked this joke: "Before I get started, I want to know whose teleprompters are these, because I don't need 'em!"
Mitt Romney, Corporate Executive
Romney had used the teleprompters as he spent about 30 minutes methodically laying out the steps he'd take to balance the budget. The former Massachusetts governor said his experiences in business, in turning around the Olympics and in the governor's mansion prove that he can fix an economy.
"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," Romney said.
He supports amending the Constitution so that Congress must pass a balanced budget every year.
And he said he'll apply this test to government spending: "Is this program so critical, so essential, that we should borrow money from China to pay for it?"
Romney said he'd save trillions by overhauling Medicare.
"The future of Medicare," he said, "should be marked by competition, by choice and by innovation, rather than by bureaucracy, stagnation and bankruptcy."
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.
"We've already seen that Republicans and Democrats in Congress ultimately don't go along with big, big changes in Medicare and Medicaid, such as the ones that he's proposing," says Collender, a former Democratic staffer on the House and Senate Budget committees, who is now with Qorvis Communications.
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.
"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," Collender says. "You can't just pick a number out of a hat and hope you're going to get there. Instead, you should be projecting things on the worst-case scenario, and if it happens a little bit faster because you underestimate it, so be it."
Romney also said he would cut the federal workforce by 10 percent, limit government salaries, and consolidate some functions, because, as he put it, "too many chefs not only spoil the broth — they make it inedible and prohibitively expensive."
Herman Cain, Conquering Hero
If Romney seemed at times to be a corporate executive at a board meeting, received with warm applause, Cain came on as a kind of conquering hero, greeted with standing ovations.
The biggest came when he said how proud he is to know David and Charles Koch, the wealthy brothers who established the foundation that sponsored the conference and many other institutions of the conservative movement.
"I am the Koch brothers' brother from another mother," said Cain. "Yes! I'm their brother from another mother — and proud of it!"
Cain did not mention the sexual harassment allegations that emerged earlier this week and dominated much of the campaign news.
He did talk, however, 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.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.