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All Aboard Cain Train: Man With 9-9-9 Plan Is Latest GOP Darling

<p>Herman Cain shakes hands with a family at a Petersburg, Fla. book signing, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011.</p>
Chris O'Meara

Herman Cain shakes hands with a family at a Petersburg, Fla. book signing, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011.

It's Herman Cain's moment.

The surprise winner of Florida's recent GOP presidential straw poll has been featured on Page 1 of the New York Times.

He's met with Donald Trump and sat down with The Wall Street Journal and the women of "The View."

He earned Gallup's highest candidate "positive intensity" score of this campaign season.

And is enthusiastically hawking a new memoir (Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House) that's zooming up the bestseller lists.

"Momentum!" the Cain campaign, which embraces the exclamation point, tweeted this week.

Indeed, the Republican Party's fickle "anybody-but-Mitt Romney" crowd has a serious crush on Cain. For now.

They've already pretty much chewed up and spit out Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who won the August Iowa GOP straw poll.

They've swallowed disappointment when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made good on his promise not to get into the race.

Their once-intense ardor for Texas Gov. Rick Perry now feels very last month. So does former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has officially retreated to Wasilla, or Arizona, or wherever she's going to plot her next act.

Why not hop on the Cain Train?

The former Godfather's Pizza CEO, Baptist preacher and Atlanta radio host has parlayed a simple economic plan, a courtly straight-talking image, and disappointment in Perry into a national persona and attention he could not have dreamed of when confined to the bottom tier of the crowded GOP field just weeks ago.

New national Republican presidential preference polls confirm the Herman Cain surge, the latest in a surge-y season for Republican White House hopefuls: CBS has him tied with former Massachusetts governor Romney at the top of the heap; Quinnipiac has him edging out Perry for second behind Romney.

"People genuinely like Herman Cain," says Republican strategist John Feehery. "He's not a politician, and people are really sick of politicians."

He's a very good speaker, able to fire up crowds, says Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer, and offers "an actual policy plank that's not too complicated."

"He's not as wonky as Romney or Santorum, not as scripted as Bachmann," Selzer says, referring to Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. "He occupies that middle ground, with a policy people can understand, and a style that's refreshing and conversant."

Says Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Atlanta's Emory University: "He's really captivated the Tea Party and part of the Republican establishment because of his candor, his frank, common-sense approach to things."

"He's always pointing to a plan," says Gillespie, "and in a time of financial uncertainty, that confidence is reassuring."

And Cain, 65, the only African American candidate in the GOP field, is not shy about injecting humor into his campaign, referring to himself as "black walnut with substance" ice cream after Palin recently characterized him as the GOP flavor of the week.

A son of the segregated South, Cain also was the only Republican candidate who nicked Perry for a "lack of sensitivity" for leasing a Texas hunting camp that, according to a Washington Post report, had at its entrance a rock painted at one time with a name that included the "n-word" racial epithet.

Cain, who has said that black voters have been "brainwashed" into voting for Democrats, made a point of saying the name out loud when asked about it on ABC.

But despite his appeal, Selzer, Feehery, and plenty of other party insiders in early caucus and primary states predict that the Cain infatuation, too, will cool, as he and his policies are subjected to intense frontrunner scrutiny.

"Staying power? I don't think so," Feehery says. "He doesn't have an organization to speak of. He has some money coming in, but it's not going to last. And he's gaffe prone."

Cain displayed a glaring lack of knowledge about the Middle East during a Fox News interview several months ago when he was unaware of a central issue in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, the Palestinians' "right of return" demand.

He said in a July interview that the United States recognizes the government of Taiwan, which it hasn't for more than two decades. And, Feehery says Cain is "out on the edge" when he insists, as he did again last Sunday on ABC's "This Week," that "some people would infuse Sharia law in our court system if we allow it."

His 9-9-9 economic plan, a radical blueprint that would scrap the nation's current tax system and replace it with a flat 9 percent income tax, 9 percent corporate tax, and 9 percent consumption tax, has been roundly criticized as harmful to the poor and working class, and a scheme that would fail to raise the same revenue collected under current policy.

Cain's strength now in national polls signify next to nothing going into a season of state-to-state contests, Selzer says, though the attention they bring may cause some people in the early states, including Iowa and New Hampshire, to take a second look at him. He likely will need some help in both of those key states, where he's been scarce. (His book tour has taken him to the crucial primary states of Florida and South Carolina.)

It's too early to speculate on his White House chances, says Gillespie, author of Whose Black Politics? Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership.

"But at the end of the day, his stock has risen," she says.

Feehery predicts that while Cain's trajectory likely won't take him to the White House, he may have already guaranteed himself a cabinet position in a Republican administration.

Cain, the author of three previous books, including They Think You're Stupid: Why Democrats Lost Your Vote and What Republicans Must Do to Keep It, certainly will sell more books, and, who know, maybe land a television gig. It's not unheard of. See: Fox, Palin, Mike Huckabee.

So, really, all is quite well on the Cain Train.

But it's likely no one is looking forward to next Tuesday's GOP candidates' debate more than Rick Perry, who would no doubt happily pass the mantle of "flavor of the week" to Cain, at least for a week or two, along with the scrutiny that comes with it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.