After last Thursday’s debate, in which both Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich outshone both of the purported frontrunners, the question of whether primary Republican voters will choose their nominee according to conventional wisdom as to what makes a candidate electable or according to personal preferences and conservative principles has been (somewhat) reopened. More than likely, nothing has changed. Rick Perry remains atop CNN’s most recent poll, after all — and Mitt Romney rode his homestate advantage to an expected straw poll victory in Michigan. But Cain’s surprise upset in the Florida straw poll this weekend was a forcible reminder that Perry and Romney aren’t technically alone in the race — and that Republicans are willing to reassert preference and principle in symbolic ways, at least. In that vein, Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips recently endorsed eloquent debater Newt Gingrich.

Tea Party Nation founder and CEO Judson Phillips has endorsed Newt Gingrich in the Republican primary, he writes in a blog post.

“Newt is electable. If you have seen the GOP debates, Gingrich has been the best debater. He does really well in that format and he looks Presidential,” Phillips, a former Tennessee district attorney who founded Tea Party Nation in 2009, wrote.

Phillips dismissed Gingrich’s extramarital affairs as “ancient history,” but didn’t address Gingrich’s quick missteps on the campaign trail or the early implosion of Gingrich’s campaign staff, both of which halted whatever momentum Gingrich had coming into the race and both of which he’s struggled to overcome as the season has continued. And what Phillips sees as a “presidential” appearance might easily be written off by the base as an “establishment” appearance, a “been-there-done-that” lack of appeal.

But the Phillips endorsement, like Cain’s straw poll victory, underscores the reality of what Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich bring to the table: The affable articulation of conservative principles as successfully applied in the private sector and in politics, respectively. While Rick Santorum struggles to appear likable and Michele Bachmann suffers for lack of meaningful legislative accomplishment, Cain and Gingrich, collectively, possess likability and a proven record in spades. It was easy to make a joke of Rick Perry’s wish for a running mate who combines the best of both of them — but, if nothing else, Perry’s private wish for a Caingrich or Gingrain demonstrates the Texas governor’s ability to quickly size up his competition and recognize what they have to offer. If that means Perry would be particularly apt to find a place in his administration for able men, then that’s a point in his favor (albeit one of the few points he scored Thursday night).

In the meantime, as always, I remain grateful for the many effective conservative spokespeople stumping across the country right now — and I hope our dear frontrunners remember always that the American people want solutions more than they care for uppercuts and counterpunches.