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When Herman Cain began his run for the White House some political observers found him interesting but not a serious candidate. The same opinion prevailed as he reached five or seven percent in the polls. When he climbed past 20 percent, becoming the frontrunner in several polls, pundits weren't sure what to make of him. He is still maintaining some support, despite a week of revelations about accusations of sexual harassment against him in the 1990s.
Yet, when some Republicans look at the structure of the campaign Herman Cain is running, they still wonder how serious a contender he really is. Some of them spoke with NPR's Tamara Keith.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Herman Cain doesn't fit the mold of your typical presidential candidate and he's proud of it.
HERMAN CAIN: Yes, I am an unconventional candidate. And, yes, I do have a sense of humor and some people have a problem with that.
KEITH: This was Cain on Monday, the morning after the first story ran detailing sexual harassment claims against him.
CAIN: To quote my chief of staff and all of the people that I've talked to around this country, Herman be Herman. And Herman is going to stay Herman.
KEITH: Herman being Herman includes saying some pretty wild things on the campaign trail.
CAIN: Well, when I'm in charge of the fence, we're going to have a fence. It's going to be 20 feet high. It's going to have barbed wire on the top. It's going to be electrocuted - electrified.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
CAIN: And there's going to be a sign on the other side that says, It will kill you.
KEITH: He later said he was joking. And then there was his interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. He was asked if he was ready for gotcha questions about the names of world leaders.
CAIN: And when they ask me who's the president of Ubekki-bekki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say, You know, I don't know. Do you know? And then I'm going to say, how is that going to create one job?
KEITH: But these gaffes, or jokes, aren't what confuse political professionals. What has them scratching their heads is the way Cain is running his campaign. Cain's not spending much time in critical early voting states like Iowa.
CAIN: I'm thrilled to be here. Thrilled to be in Alabama. We're on our bus tour around Alabama.
KEITH: More than 20 states will be choosing a nominee before Alabama does in mid-March. Cain told a crowd there last week, some people were questioning his trip.
CAIN: And every time one of the skeptics goes on TV and talk about all of the reasons that Herman Cain can't win: He's a nice guy. He came up with one cutesy idea - 9-9-9. But he can't get the nomination. Well, the American people have a different idea.
CRAIG ROBINSON: It doesn't make any sense. I mean no disrespect to the people of Alabama.
KEITH: Craig Robinson is editor-in-chief of TheIowaRepublican.com and a former political director of the state Republican Party. He isn't affiliated with any of the candidates.
ROBINSON: If you're actually campaigning in a state that's not one of the early states at this time, where we're only 60 days out from an election, tells me that you're more interested in creating name ID, selling books, and improving your own brand, instead of your own chances at being the Republican nominee.
KEITH: An e-mail to the Cain campaign about questions of seriousness didn't get a response. Though yesterday, the campaign did launch a fundraising drive aiming to raise $999,000 to amp up its presence in Iowa.
And two new polls done since the scandal broke show Cain leading in South Carolina and nationally. Pollster Scott Rasmussen says GOP voters are fundamentally rejecting the status quo.
SCOTT RASMUSSEN: Well, it's almost as if they're saying, we know that Herman Cain has had some trouble talking about issues like Afghanistan and abortion. He's having trouble responding to these allegations. But then again he couldn't possibly do any worse than the guys that have driven us so far in debt over the past few generations.
KEITH: And that's the thing about this primary campaign. It's been unpredictable.
RASMUSSEN: Do I think his campaign strategy makes sense? There's a lot of things about his campaign that have struck me as troubling, or off the wall. But then again, despite all of those things, he's leading in the polls.
KEITH: Rasmussen says, 20 years ago, he would have said there was no chance someone like Herman Cain could win the nomination, someone without a big campaign infrastructure, focused on national media instead of the traditional precinct-by-precinct organizing in Iowa and New Hampshire. But today, he's not so sure.
Tamara Keith, NPR News.