LYNN NEARY, host: Godfather's Pizza-executive-turned-political-candidate Herman Cain is making strides in his presidential bid. Since he won the Florida straw poll late last month, Cain seems to be everywhere, appearing on Sunday talk shows, promoting a new book and taking every opportunity to try to maintain his momentum. But some question whether he's a real contender. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.
KATHY LOHR: Businessman Herman Cain is taking advantage of his recent rise to fame. People like the way he talks. His frank, motivational style has come out in GOP debates and in this speech before the Florida straw poll.
HERMAN CAIN: And the biggest crisis of all is a severe deficiency of leadership in Washington, D.C. and in the White House - leadership deficiency.
LOHR: Cain got a surprising 37 percent in that Florida straw poll. And now in one national survey, the self-proclaimed problem-solver is running neck-and-neck with Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. And he shot ahead of Texas Governor 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."
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CAIN: That is very insensitive. And since Governor Perry has been going there for years to hunt, I think that it shows a lack of sensitively for a long time of not taking that word off of that rock and renaming the place.
LOHR: Perry's decline certainly added to Cain's rise in the polls. But can he sustain the momentum?
MERLE BLACK: Early on, I think there's a lot of interest in his candidacy. He's immensely likable among Republican primary voters.
LOHR: Merle Black is 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.
BLACK: He's got to be able to be seen in Iowa, in New Hampshire, in South Carolina as someone who's not only likeable, 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.
LOHR: 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's never held political office. And that's tough in the long run.
LESTER SPENCE: 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.
LOHR: Lester Spence is a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. He says Cain doesn't have a lot of campaign staff, and he 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.
SPENCE: 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.
LOHR: 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 plan, promoting his new book. And Cain's been on "The View" and on "The Tonight Show," where he said he's not just the flavor of the week.
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CAIN: That might be true with some people. But I happen to believe that there's ice milk and there's Haagen-Dazs black walnut - substance. That's the difference. I got some substance, here. OK?
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LOHR: The decision by Sarah Palin and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie not to get into the race probably helps Cain, but it also might help Romney.
Kerwin Swint is a former GOP consultant and political scientist at Kennesaw State University.
KERWIN SWINT: So 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 going to be in that conversation, because he's not going anywhere. And I think he can have an opportunity to play a role well into the primaries, maybe to the convention.
LOHR: Winning the GOP presidential nomination is a real long shot, but Cain - who beat cancer and so far has beat all the predications about his candidacy - says don't count him out. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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