Is Herman Cain a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination? It's a question no one in the pundit world was asking until the past week. Cain has never held public office. When he ran for the Senate in Georgia in 2004, he lost the primary by a 52 percent to 26 percent margin. He has zero experience in foreign or defense policy, where presidents have the most leeway to set policy. When questioned about the Middle East earlier this year, he clearly had no idea what the "right of return" is.
His solid performance in the Fox News/Google debate Sept. 22 didn't get pundits to take his chances seriously. Neither did his 37 percent to 15 percent victory over Rick Perry in the Florida straw poll on Sept. 24. That was taken as a response to Perry's weak debate performance and a tribute to Cain for showing up and speaking before the 2,657 people who voted.
But Republicans around the nation seem to have responded the same way. The Fox News poll conducted Sept. 25 to 27 showed Cain with 17 percent of the vote -- a statistically significant jump from the 5 percent he had been averaging in polls taken in previous weeks.
And a SurveyUSA poll of Florida Republicans conducted Sept. 24 to 27 showed Cain trailing Mitt Romney by only 27 percent to 25 percent -- a statistical tie. That's very different from the Florida polls conducted by Public Policy Polling Sept. 22 to 25 and Quinnipiac Sept. 14 to 19, both of which showed Cain with 7 percent. We will see whether other national or state polls show Cain with a similar surge. If so, then there's a real possibility that Cain could win enough primaries and caucuses to be a real contender.
That possibility is already being taken seriously by The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger. Henninger argued in a Sept. 29 column that Cain's success in business -- engineering turnarounds in Burger King's Philadelphia stores and Godfather's Pizza nationally -- made him a plausible candidate.
"Unlike the incumbent," Henninger wrote, "Herman Cain has at least twice identified the causes of a large failing enterprise, designed goals, achieved them and by all accounts inspired the people he was supposed to lead." Cain's business success, his "9-9-9" tax plan, his generally conservative stands on issues, the YouTube clip showing him debating Bill Clinton on health care in 1994 -- all of these help account for his apparent surge in the polls.
But I suspect there are a couple of other factors. One is likeability. Romney's attempts at ingratiation are awkward, and Perry's charm is lost on most non-Texans. But Cain is, as the Atlantic's liberal analyst Chris Good concedes, "undeniably likeable."
Another thing going for him is race. White conservatives like to hear black candidates who articulate their views and will vote for them: Check out Rep. Tim Scott of Charleston, S.C. In this, white conservatives resemble white liberals, who liked hearing Barack Obama articulate their views and were ready to vote for him, too. This is what Joe Biden was getting at with his awkward 2007 comment that Obama was a "clean" black candidate.
White moderates are ready to support black candidates, too, as Obama showed in the 2008 general election. Cain claims that he could get one-third of the black vote in a general election. There's no way to rigorously test that.
But it finds some support in Scott Rasmussen's polls, which have been regularly pitting 10 current or possible candidates against Obama. Rasmussen finds Romney ahead by 2 percent and Chris Christie trailing by 1 percent. The other candidate closest to Obama, trailing by 5 percent, is Cain.
Moreover, Cain holds Obama to the lowest share of the vote, 39 percent, of any of the 10 Republicans. That may be because some black voters desert Obama when Cain is the opponent.
Further support can be found in the Low Country of South Carolina, where Scott won with 65 percent of the vote in 2010 in a district where John McCain won just 56 percent and where 20 percent of the population is black. No other Republican freshmen in the Old South ran so far ahead of McCain.
All this speculation may be getting far ahead of the facts. Cain still has significant liabilities as a candidate and could make a disqualifying mistake any time. But he's beginning to look like a contender.
Michael Barone | Creators Syndicate Inc.