Herman Cain has set the Republican primary alight. Implausible though it sounds, this once unfancied ex-pizza magnate is now the frontrunner to take on President Barack Obama next year, having built a slim but consistent poll lead over Mitt Romney in recent weeks. But that’s not what has Beltway insiders all a twitter – no, that would be his new “smoking” campaign advert.

The brief spot is a monologue from Mr Cain’s campaign manager, Mark Block. For the first 25 seconds it is perfectly predictable: Mr Block trots off anodyne lines about taking the country back, set to stirring backing music from a Tea Party anthem entitled “I Am America”. But then, suddenly, in the closing moments, Mr Block stares intensely into the camera, and begins to puff on a cigarette. Cue instant furore.

What exactly team Cain is trying to say here has puzzled political analysts. The campaign knocked back the early theory that the spot was just a spoof, leaving the field open to more outlandish online speculation about cunning subliminal messaging. Amid much amateur semiotic theorising, the notion that the scene had been deliberately included to push Mr Cain’s brand as a rebellious outsider took hold.

The claim seems absurd, but this is not the first time such ploys have been suspected. In 2008 John McCain ran a foreign policy advert which appeared to feature Mr Obama circled by images in which the letters “a” “l” “q” and “d” were highlighted; some mused this was designed imperceptibly to bring the word “al-Qaeda” to voters’ minds. Then, in 2000, an attack on Al Gore was found to include a fleeting shot of the word “RATS”; again some suspected subliminal chicanery.

With Mr Cain, the more plausible explanation – that the advert is just odd, not devious – is more likely. Whatever the rationale, though, smoking in office need not be a vote loser – a fact to which Mr Obama, who often sneaks out for a puff, can attest. With one eye on his preferred 2012 opponent, however, this is one president who must be hoping that Mr Cain’s quixotic campaign doesn’t go up in smoke just yet.

IRAte voters

Another politician with an unusual backstory is now doing better than expected: Martin McGuinness. The former Irish Republican Army commander is standing as Sinn Féin candidate for Ireland’s presidency, and his opponents seem rattled. One is Sean Gallagher, an entrepreneur standing as an independent, who has been ahead in the polls. He accused Mr McGuinness on Wednesday of a political “assassination attempt”, for allegations concerning Mr Gallacher and a fundraising event in 2008. Just in case voters missed the subtle subtext to his riposte, Mr Gallacher then added that the attack constituted an “ambush” too. Still, this is far from the only reference to the former terrorist’s more youthful and violent activities in the contest to date. As one joke doing the rounds on Twitter (and purporting to be from a voter in Donegal) put it: “I just found an election leaflet from Martin McGuinness under my car. Old habits die hard.”

Occupation hazards

Over the sea from Ireland, another political battle is being fought as the “Occupy” movement comes to London. Finsbury Square, a genteel park in the midst of the City, has been taken over by throngs of anti-capitalist campers. The protests have made a splash, so earlier this week your intrepid diarist popped in to see what the fuss was about.

Some 120 tents stand close together inside the park, surround by grand office buildings and guarded by nervy police. Despite their anger at the inequities of global commerce, the residents generally appear to be having a thoroughly good time of it – except for two rather problematic indignities, that is.

The first followed the decision of the local council to close Finsbury Square’s public toilets – forcing the protesters to make an ideologically humiliating journey across the road, to use the facilities at the nearest McDonald's. The second was an issue of power itself. The camp is a high tech affair, with iPhone-wielding inhabitants uploading YouTube clips throughout the day. Sadly, however, it has only one generator – and this broke down on Monday. While those gathered at the camp excel at high-minded proposals to reform the system, it transpires not one of them knew an electrician, or indeed had any electrical skill. And so, as the night fell, the protests turned out to be entirely powerless after all.

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