The Herman Cain surge: why he rose (not Mitt Romney) as Rick Perry slid

Herman Cain gained support from GOP voters after Texas Gov. Rick Perry stumbled in presidential debates, polls show. Now is his big opportunity to build on his momentum, analysts say.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, talks to the media after a meeting with real estate developer Donald Trump, Monday.
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Herman Cain is on a roll in the GOP presidential sweepstakes, and it’s not hard to see why. The former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza is an affable, upbeat outsider with a record of success in business. Most important, he is focused on the issue voters care about most – the economy – with his “9-9-9” tax plan.

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry stumbled in debates and descended from his front-runner perch, Mr. Cain was there to pick up the slack. He notched a surprise victory against Governor Perry in the Florida straw poll Sept. 24, and Cain is now second in national polls, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In CBS News’ latest survey, he and Mr. Romney are tied for first.

The fact that many disaffected Perry voters went to Cain and not Romney – the Republican who polls best against President Obama – is telling. Romney also has an economic proposal, his 59-point jobs plan. But he has allowed himself to get caught up in point-scoring with Perry over Social Security and immigration, and away from his core economic message. And many conservatives still don’t trust Romney, who continues to defend his Massachusetts health-care reform, a model for Mr. Obama’s reform.

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Political analysts still call Cain a long-shot for the GOP nomination. But the race remains fluid, and now is his opportunity to build on his momentum.

"There’s a door open such that people are willing to look at him and his accomplishments,” says Republican pollster David Winston. “Voters want candidates who say what they’ll do and try to lay out solutions.”

Still, Cain has had his moments of distraction. He has faced criticism for saying he wouldn’t put a Muslim in his Cabinet. And as the only African-American in the GOP race, he has gotten attention for calling Perry’s racially named hunting lodge “insensitive,” then backing away from the comment, then repeating it.

Cain’s decision to shift to a long-planned book tour to promote his new memoir, “This is Herman Cain!,” has been derided as a sign he’s not serious about running for president, just selling books. But that may be a distinction without a difference.

In a book-related appearance on ABC-TV’s “The View” Oct. 4, Cain used the spotlight to flesh out his résumé. Besides his Godfather’s gig, he was a VP at Pillsbury, a VP at Burger King Corp., head of the National Restaurant Association, chairman of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, a mathematician with the Department of the Navy, and a member of the Strategic Air Command Citizen Advisory Board.

“I’m a problem-solver,” Cain said, to applause from the studio audience.

It’s not the same as slogging from town to town in Iowa and New Hampshire, but Cain insists he can finish in the top three in those first two contests, then win in South Carolina and Florida. But he’s not scheduled to return to Iowa until the middle of November, and with staff shakeups, it’s not clear his campaign organization is firing on all cylinders.

Cain is also trying to break the mold by running for president as a political novice. The last time the United States elected a nonpolitician president was in 1952, with Dwight Eisenhower. Just as then, Cain argues that the times demand a different sort of leadership – not the business-as-usual political types. Polls showing high public distrust of government seem to back that view. But Cain isn’t a universally known five-star general war hero. In fact, he’s known by only about half of Republican voters.

“Do I think Herman Cain is going to win the nomination? Absolutely not,” says a Republican strategist. “But Cain has positioned himself so that he will remain in the conversation for a little while longer.”

And if this presidential thing doesn’t work out, at least he’s selling a lot of books. He’s already hit the top 10 on Amazon.com.

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