Back in March, when he was simply one among many candidates vying for the top spot in the GOP presidential contest, former pizza magnate and Atlanta talk show host Herman Cain wrote about his relationship with tea party voters: "Could the people who are part of this massive citizens' movement be looking past the color of my skin?"
As Mr. Cain surged for the first time to the top of the GOP field in one poll on Thursday, buttressed by strong tea party support, his rhetorical question appears prophetic. A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll gave Cain a 69 percent "favorable" score among tea-party backers.
Most tea partyers credit the blunt, plainspoken, and happily iconoclastic Cain for being "real" and "not a politician" as the cornerstones of their support. But to many who decry the charge that the tea party is racist, Cain's rise is a none-too-subtle pushback.
"I find it funny that the 'racist' tea party is now rallying behind a black candidate," said one female tea party adherent from Texas who responded to the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.
Cain's surge this week provided a new twist on the notion that the tea party is merely hiding its racism behind a black candidate, as some critics have contended.
"Part of this debate, and what people are having a problem with, is how Cain's tea party support is tied to groups of people who don't recognize systemic racism," says Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "And that feeds into this 'token' argument, that he's being duped or exploited by the tea party in order to prove that they're not racist."
For his part, Cain has defended the tea party, saying its supporters are simply ideologically aligned with his own beliefs that, while racism may still play a role in America, it's no longer a defining factor guiding each individual's plight.
To many liberals, Cain's viewpoints peg him as a "bad apple," in the words of singer Harry Belanfonte. Other black commentators hit harder: Cain is marketing himself as "the dark-faced puppet of those who are afraid to touch the issue [of race]," writes Syracuse University professor Boyce Watkins on the website, News One.
But to many tea party activists, those charges come off sounding desperate and offensive. Moreover, they say, the idea that Cain is a "puppet" ignores how tea party conservatives helped elect an Indian-American, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; a Hispanic, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; and Rep. Tim Scott, a conservative African-American from a largely white district in South Carolina.
Some analysts suggest Cain, if he gets the nomination, won't be able to peel off more than 15 percent of the black voting bloc. In addition, some conservative whites may ultimately be turned off by a black candidate.
Indeed, there is evidence that some tea partyers, by a higher margin than most Republicans, view blacks more negatively than they do whites.
A 2010 survey by the University of Washington has been cited as the strongest indication of a racial dimension to the tea party. In that survey, 73 percent of "strong" supporters of the tea party said blacks would be as well off as whites if they just tried harder, compared to 33 percent of strong tea party opponents who thought the same thing. "Support for the tea party makes one 25 percent more likely to be racially resentful than those who don't support the tea party," Christopher Parker, the author of the survey, concluded.
But the depth and consequence of that resentment is clearly being tested by Cain.
He is presenting the political right with a unique opportunity, says Professor Gillespie at Emory. "The best thing that Herman Cain and other black Republicans can do is to push the Republican Party to be more cognizant of how they frame issues" in order to appeal to conservative blacks who, as of now, don't trust the GOP.