Can Herman Cain Keep It Going?

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Businessman and GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain has been taking advantage of his recent rise to fame. Since he won the Florida straw poll late last month, he is everywhere: appearing on Sunday talk shows, promoting his new book and taking every opportunity to try to maintain his momentum.

People like the way he talks. His frank, motivational style has come out in GOP debates and in speeches.

"And the biggest crisis of all is a severe deficiency of leadership in Washington, D.C., and in the White House. Leadership. Deficiency," Cain said in a speech before the Florida straw poll.

Cain got a surprising 37 percent of the vote in that poll, and in another survey, the self-proclaimed problem solver is running neck and neck with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and has shot ahead of Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry's popularity declined after a couple of shaky debate performances and after he was attacked by conservatives for his position on granting in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. There's also been the recent flap over his family's use of a hunting camp in West Texas where a racially offensive name was painted on a rock at the entrance. Cain went on the attack on ABC's This Week. "That is very insensitive. And since Gov. Perry has been going there for years to hunt, I think it shows a lack of sensitivity for a long time of not taking that word off of that rock and renaming the place," Cain said.

Perry's decline certainly added to Cain's rise in the polls. But can Cain sustain the momentum?

"Early on, I think there's a lot of interest in his candidacy. He's immensely likable among Republican primary voters," says Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University who has studied elections for decades.

Black says it may be tough for Cain to build support in the early primary and caucus states.

"He's got to be able to be seen in Iowa, New Hampshire, in South Carolina, as someone not only likable but someone whom Republican primary voters think could really be the next president of the United States, and that's going to be another challenge for him along the way," Black says.

Part of Cain's rise is also due to the reluctance of Tea Party supporters and social conservatives to embrace Romney. Their early alternative was Michele Bachmann, then Perry. Now Cain is getting the nod — a conservative African-American who has never held political office, and that's tough in the long run.

"If you recall, the reason Obama was able to establish a lead and perform so well in the Democratic primaries of 2008 was because he had a strong organization," says Lester Spence, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. But Cain doesn't have a lot of campaign staff and hasn't spent much time in some of the early-voting states. Spence also says Cain's race has not held him back so far with Republican primary voters. And he says it may be other factors that could hurt Cain, for instance with voters in New Hampshire.

"It may not be because he's black but it may be because given where they are, they may be more sophisticated voters as far as what they want from a political candidate," Spence says.

Another challenge is money, as Cain doesn't have the fundraising ability that other contenders do, although he does have a personal fortune that he could spend. It's clear Cain is charismatic and catching on right now. He's talking up his 9-9-9 tax reform plan, promoting his new book, and has been on The View and on The Tonight Show, where he said he's not just the flavor of the week.

"I happen to believe that there's ice milk and Haagen-Dazs black walnut. Substance, that's the difference. I got some substance here, OK?" Cain told Jay Leno.

The decision by Sarah Palin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to not get into the race probably helps Cain, but it also might help Romney.

"I think Romney has an opportunity over the next couple of months to sort of close the sale, and I think Herman Cain is still gonna be in conversation because he's not going anywhere," says Kerwin Swint, a former GOP consultant and political scientist at Kennesaw State University. "And I think he can have an opportunity to play a role well into the primaries, maybe to the convention."

Winning the GOP presidential nomination is a real long shot, but Cain, who beat cancer and, so far, has beaten all the predictions about his candidacy, insists that no one should count him out.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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