Herman Cain is able

The former head of Godfather’s Pizza is spicing up the Republican presidential campaign

This Cain is able

Danny Wilcox Frazier/Redux

Herman Cain is the rare presidential hopeful with a healthy sense of humour about himself. The former CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain recently quipped: “If you vote for me, America, I will deliver.”

Now Cain is becoming less of a punch-line. He has soared from barely registering in the polls to a tie for second place in the Republican race. The 65-year-old African-American businessman from Atlanta has drawn support away from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has ceded his front-runner status back to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

One-quarter of Republican primary voters still prefer Romney, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week. Meanwhile, Perry has dropped from 29 per cent to 16 per cent, leaving him tied with Cain, who has surged from a mere four points as recently as early September.

Cain’s new-found support is coming mostly from conservative voters as they abandon Perry. Just a month ago, Perry led the pack among voters who “strongly” back the Tea Party. But the new poll suggests his support has imploded, from 45 per cent to 10 per cent among that faction. The shift has been to Cain, who, among these voters, jumped from five per cent to 30 per cent in a mere month, as the Texas governor showed himself to be a weak debater and not quite the rock-ribbed conservative some voters believed him to be.

Meanwhile, it seems the more voters see of Cain, the more they say they like him. He is the only contender who has never held public office—a distinction that he wears as a badge of honour in this anti-establishment environment. And he has a compelling personal story: his mother was a maid and his father a janitor, barber and chauffeur in the segregated South. Cain pursued degrees in mathematics and computer science, and rose from computer systems analyst at Coca-Cola to oversee the turnaround of Godfather’s Pizza. Cain headed of the National Restaurant Association and, in 1994, he appeared on a televised town hall to tell Bill Clinton that his proposed health care reform would be a job-killer. He made failed bids for president in 2000 and the Senate in 2004, but in September he won the Republican straw poll in Florida.

Still, he’s got a long way to go. While Cain can talk policy details about his “nine-nine-nine” tax plan (it would slash income and capital gain tax rates to nine per cent, and introduce a nine per cent federal sales tax), he has had less to say on foreign policy. Cain has claimed that he could garner one-third of the African-American vote, depriving Barack Obama of crucial support. But he offended some black voters by claiming they are “brainwashed” by Democrats. He’s said he would not be comfortable appointing a Muslim to his cabinet or as a judge. And he has sometimes seemed more interested in promoting his book, This is Herman Cain!, than campaigning.

Cain may be the latest favourite of the Anyone-But-Romney movement, but the front-runner can take heart. In the fall of 2007, Rudy Giuliani and actor Fred Thompson were polling far ahead of a certain Arizona senator who was under fire from conservatives. In the end, the party still nominated John McCain.

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