ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Well, we just heard some anecdotal evidence to support something that's appeared this week in polls, and that is the rise of Herman Cain. The former CEO of Godfather's Pizza has surprised a lot of people. He may not visit a lot of pancake breakfasts in Iowa or town hall meetings in New Hampshire, but as NPR's Mara Liasson reports, his speeches and debate performances have captured the attention of Republican voters.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The graph on the front page of The Wall Street Journal described the Republican race perfectly: a big X. One line heading down, that's Rick Perry collapsing. The other diagonal line heading up, that's Herman Cain surging. And a flat horizontal line running through right the middle, that's Mitt Romney, steady but unmoving at 23 percent. Herman Cain told NPR's Scott Simon that his rise was not a case of being the flavor of the week.
HERMAN CAIN: If you look at what has allowed me to surge, it is because of the substance and the ideas and the specific solutions that I have put on the table.
LIASSON: Cain is polished and folksy, and he has a slogan-ready economic platform. He calls it the 9-9-9 plan. That's a 9 percent income tax rate, a 9 percent corporate tax rate and a 9 percent national sales tax.
CAIN: It is a bold solution to a crisis we have called this economy. It starts with throwing out the old tax code and putting in this very simple, transparent, efficient, fair, revenue -neutral plan that's appealing to the American public, to people who are finding out who Herman Cain is.
LIASSON: Right now, the consensus view is that Herman Cain is a gifted communicator but not a real contender for the nomination, says the Brookings Institution's political analyst Darrell West.
DARRELL WEST: He's done very well in debates. He gives a very strong speech. He makes a good, positive first impression. But he doesn't have all the other stuff, you know, the get-out-the-vote effort on the ground, the field organization that typically a winning candidate has.
LIASSON: Cain hasn't even spent much time campaigning in the early states. And although Cain says his fundraising has gone up twentyfold, he still has only several hundred thousand dollars in cash on hand, but Cain says that's not a problem.
CAIN: President Obama might raise a billion dollars to try to get re-elected, but the people of this country are going to raise some Cain.
LIASSON: In the New Hampshire debate his week, Cain functioned as a foil for Mitt Romney. Here's a Cain-Romney exchange from that debate, which was sponsored by Bloomberg and The Washington Post.
(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)
CAIN: The 9-9-9 plan that I have proposed is simple, transparent, efficient, fair and neutral. My question is to Governor Romney. Can you name all 59 points in your 160-page plan and does it satisfy that criteria of being simple, transparent, efficient, fair and neutral?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MITT ROMNEY: Herman, I've had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems and I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate.
LIASSON: Romney never bothered to take on the substance of the 9-9-9 plan. That's because Cain is not a real threat to Romney, says Darrell West.
WEST: The more that the conservative part of the field remains divided among several different candidates, the better off Mitt Romney is. His worst case scenario is a one-on-one fight with a conservative in that race. That's a race that he could lose, but the longer the field stays crowded, the better off he is because those people are going to divide the vote and allow him to become the nominee.
LIASSON: For now, Herman Cain is serving as a helpful buffer between Romney and the other candidates, particularly Rick Perry, who, unlike Cain, has the money for television ads and a field organization. It will take all of that and more to threaten Romney's path to the nomination.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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