ATLANTA — Bolstered by support from his loyal radio talk-show audience and tea party backers, businessman Herman Cain has revved up mainstream conservatives, rising recently to third place in a poll of voters in Iowa, the leadoff caucus state.
In his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination, Cain's views on the economy and his fiery delivery have resonated with some in the GOP. His campaign has also been marked by controversy, including his comment that he would not want a Muslim bent on killing Americans in his administration. Just this week, Cain accused comedian Jon Stewart of disliking him because he is an "American black conservative."
Already losing some of his cachet to tea party favorite Michele Bachmann, Cain, the lone African-American GOP candidate, is trying to win over a party that hasn't had a black nominee. Sidestepping race as an issue in his campaign may have helped him gain momentum in recent weeks, but whether he can turn vigor into votes will depend largely on voters' ability to look past his skin color and perceive him as a serious candidate.
"He appeals to people because he doesn't talk about race," said South Carolina Republican strategist Chip Felkel. "I think that too often, if anyone does go into that discussion, it's then used by other people to criticize them. I don't think that needs to be part of his narrative. He's a business person. He's an American."
Cain has been on a remarkable trajectory since entering the race more than a month ago, when a crowd of 15,000 stormed a downtown Atlanta park to cheer him on at his campaign announcement. He was received well at the Republican Leadership Conference this month in New Orleans and drew nearly 100 in Greenville, S.C., for a discussion of his economic plan.
On Saturday, his campaign released his first campaign-finance filing, showing a total of $2.5 million raised so far. Spokeswoman Ellen Carmichael said the total includes more than 27,000 nationwide online donations. Cain did put some of his own money in, but Carmichael described it as "only a fraction" of the total and "modest seed money."
His narrative – outlined in a patriotic, four-minute video that winds across rolling hills and pastures and ends in a boardroom against the backdrop of the American flag – is that of a no-excuses, no-nonsense fighter who isn't afraid of a challenge. On the stump, he offers simplified stances on complex issues like national defense, the federal income tax and why he thinks America should return to the gold standard. He has been compared to Republican heroes like Ronald Reagan.
"He's fresh, he's outspoken," said Debbie Dooley, head of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots. "If they hear him speak, he usually wins them over. With him, what you see is what you get. People like that."
Cain's story of uplift is not without hints of his heritage. In a campaign video, the great-great grandson of slaves recalls his hardscrabble beginnings in the Jim Crow South, where his father worked three jobs to buy a house and stressed the importance of education to Cain, a graduate of the all-male, historically black Morehouse College.
"He doesn't believe in the whole business of race being a defining factor of anything in this country," said William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University, which is predominantly black. "He says, `If you work hard, you will make it. Look at me.' He believes racism is just one of the many obstacles people face. If he ran any other way, he wouldn't be showing up in the polls."
Cain, a former pizza company executive, said he became a conservative "when I started to make some money" and dismisses the idea that his views somehow diminish his black identity.
"I have never left the black community," Cain told The Associated Press, noting he's attended the same black Baptist church for years. "I am a part of the black community. I don't have to do anything special. I just have to tell the truth. That transcends ethnicity."
Recent poll numbers and a flurry of media attention seem to suggest his strategy is working.
"He's getting first, second and third looks from people," said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "There's a buzz on the street among activists. People like him; they want to know more about him. That's sort of living the dream as far as a presidential candidate goes. He's getting the kind of reaction every candidate imagines."
Political observers say Cain will have to seize the moment to get the donors and endorsements to take his campaign from grass roots to top tier. He'll also have to overcome his lack of political experience.
"I don't think people look at the presidency as an entry-level job in politics," Cullen said. "They say, `We like him, but can we see him as president?'"
Cain's candidacy has not been without gaffes, and he has made a few racially tinged remarks that have raised eyebrows. Last month, Cain was quoted as saying that blacks "can't afford to" join him at tea party rallies and other conservative events. In campaign footage, he is seen with tea partyers across the country, warning, "To all of those who say that the tea party is a racist organization ... eat your words!"
Last month, after referring to himself as "the dark horse candidate," Cain invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he began his speech to the Republican Leadership Conference with the words, "I have a dream" of GOP victories in the House and Senate in 2012 and said he would be the next president of the United States.
At times, Cain seems to enjoy flirting with race. He is fond of saying that he "left the Democratic plantation years ago." At a recent campaign event in Atlanta, he told the crowd that when asked by a reporter what distinguished him from his fellow GOP candidates, he answered: "One of the biggest differences is the color of my ... eyes." At the same meeting, during a lull in the questioning, Cain sang the spiritual "Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now" in a velvet baritone.
The mostly white audience ate it up.
"One of the things I have done throughout this ... is that I'm not going to allow people to distract us with this whole color thing," he told the crowd. "It is not about color. It's about good ideas that will save this economy and this nation."