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A 2012 boom for Cain, but winning will be tougher

U.S. presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks to delegates during the Republican Party of Florida Presidency 5 Convention in Orlando
U.S. presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks to delegates during the Republican Party of Florida Presidency 5 Convention in Orlando

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Herman Cain is on a roll, the latest hot commodity in a constantly shifting 2012 Republican presidential race.

But turning that boomlet into long-term and broad support will be a very difficult task for a novice candidate with no money and a relatively meager campaign organization.

After a surprise win over leaders Rick Perry and Mitt Romney in a Florida Republican straw poll last weekend, Cain surged into third place in a national Fox News poll and earned lots of free publicity with a series of appearances on cable news shows.

Almost overnight, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO went from an afterthought to a legitimate voice in the 2012 race. But many analysts dismissed his straw poll win as more of a sign of unhappiness with the rest of the party's presidential field rather than an endorsement of Cain.

"The future is bright for Herman Cain. Do I think he's going to win the nomination? Absolutely not," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said.

"But he's answering questions and he's resonating with voters while Romney and Perry are playing a partisan, bickering game of one-upmanship ," he said.

While Perry and Romney have battled at the top of the presidential field, Cain lurked until last week in single digits in the bottom tier of the Republican race, largely unnoticed except during debates.

But Perry has drawn conservative criticism for his views on immigration, and Romney has struggled to conquer conservative doubts about the healthcare overhaul he backed as governor of liberal Massachusetts.

Cain, meanwhile, appeals to social conservatives and Tea Party activists with his blunt views on social issues and a "999" proposal to drastically rewrite tax laws to create a 9 percent business tax, 9 percent individual tax and 9 percent national sales tax.

The Republican race for the right to face President Barack Obama in 2012 has seen several momentum changes already. Michele Bachmann had a short-lived boomlet after winning the Iowa straw poll in August, and Perry surged ahead of his rivals after entering the race last month only to drift back to the pack.

'FLAVOR OF THE WEEK'

Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee who has had her own ups and downs in the polls, had a blunt assessment of Cain earlier this week.

"I guess you could say, with all due respect, he's the flavor of the week," Palin said on Fox News.

Cain's critics have questioned his electability given his low name recognition, lack of political experience and lack of funds. But Cain, who is black, said he could capture a portion of the black vote if he challenged Obama and claimed blacks were "brainwashed" into supporting liberal Democrats.

"African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open minded, not even considering a conservative point of view," Cain said on CNN. "I have received some of that same vitriol simply because I am running for the Republican nomination as a conservative."

Cain also said he would not endorse Perry, in part because of his policies on the Mexico border and immigration. Perry does not support building a border fence and has backed giving the children of illegal immigrants cheaper in-state tuition in Texas.

Given his longshot status, Cain also has benefited from a lack of scrutiny of his more controversial pronouncements, including his refusal to appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet and his suggestion alligators could be positioned in a moat on the U.S. border with Mexico.

To show long-term staying power in the race, Cain would have to prove he can raise more money and temper his controversial comments.

"Right now, Cain's surge is more of an indictment of Rick Perry and the other candidates," O'Connell said. "But he can leverage this momentum into a meaningful place in the forefront of the debate."

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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