10/09/2011 07:53 pm ET | Updated Dec 09, 2011

Is There More to Herman Cain Than Meets the Eye?

Everyone seems at a loss to explain Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain's extraordinary surge in the polls -- from near extinction three weeks ago to virtual GOP front-runner in the latest surveys conducted by CBS, the Pew Research Center, and Zogby International. And while it's tempting to see Cain's latest rise as simply a reflection of Texas governor Rick Perry's equally spectacular fall, the fact is, the 64-year-old pizza magnate has had broad appeal with Republican voters from the start.

Cain's role in this year's campaign actually bears a striking resemblance to that of another GOP upstart, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the one-time darling of Christian evangelicals who surged so strongly in 2008 -- winning Iowa and placing second in South Carolina -- that he forced fellow conservative Mitt Romney completely out of the race, effectively sealing the nomination for John McCain. But Cain's already looking like more than just a "spoiler." In fact, the latest Zogby poll has him polling slightly ahead of Romney and Perry in a head-to-head match up with Obama (46%-44%), suggesting a growing appeal among independents. That's led some Republican operatives to suggest that Cain could, in fact, under the right circumstances, end up getting the GOP nod. Here are four good reasons not to underestimate the man his closest supporters call The "Hermanator."

"Presence". Cain's oratorical gifts, and his extraordinary "likability" -- two factors that also strongly favor Obama, despite his declining "favorability" -- are huge assets in a GOP field that's already forced other compelling figures, among them Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, to withdraw. Cain's clearly no slouch as an orator. Like Ronald Reagan, he first honed his compelling rhetorical style as a radio talk show host in Atlanta; he's also been on the business circuit for years as a motivational speaker. Unlike other candidates, he sticks to concise, easy-to-remember formulations -- like his catchy if dubious "9-9-9" tax code reform plan -- and his message, delivered with a warm smile almost regardless of the content, is consistently positive and upbeat. Critics, especially on the left, have ridiculed Cain's lack of policy depth, even likening his "9-9-9" numbers to a pizza delivery code. But, of course, they also dismissed Reagan as an "amiable dunce" and look who ended up on top.

Social Media. And it's not just Cain's on-air presence -- and emerging celebrity -- that's proven compelling, but also his rather surprising mastery of social media. The volume of Cain's Twitter account ranks right up there with Romney's and Perry's, and in recent weeks, he's managed to out-tweet the entire GOP field. One industry analyst has noted Cain's distinctive use of "hash-tags" that have earned him extra "buzz." In fact, some thought libertarian gadfly Ron Paul won the first GOP debate, but the verdict rendered by Republican mogul Frank Luntz's on-air focus group, which rated Cain the victor, soon spread virally, thanks to online Tea Partiers more sympathetic to Cain. And no one writes op-eds and other short blurbs to promote his policy views like Cain, who has used online conservative newspapers like The Daily Caller -- the Republicans' answer to the Huffington Post -- to maximum advantage.

Reputation. Cain's also not the complete political neophyte that he appears to most observers, having run, albeit unsuccessfully (he got trounced), for a US Senate seat in Georgia in 2004, the same year Barack Obama captured one in Illinois. In fact, Cain's reputation on the national stage dates back 20 years to a dramatic encounter he had with President Bill Clinton during a nationally televised town hall on health care reform. Cain, as an invited questioner representing the National Restaurant Association, went head-to-toe with Clinton over the likely effect of his reform plan on small businesses and was so effective in parrying Clinton's replies that the president, visibly embarrassed, was forced to back down. Cain has bragged that he single-handedly defeated the Clinton health care reform push -- an exaggeration, of course -- but the encounter did give him extraordinary national exposure and a reservoir of good will and funding support - that he continues to draw on.

Race. Cain also has a unique asset, especially for a Republican. He's Black, and openly proud of it, but still disdains liberal "identity politics," and the assumption that Black voters must inevitably vote Democrat. Conservatives, of course, have long extolled minority candidates that espouse Republican policies that liberals say are primarily designed to benefit whites. But Cain's no Black millionaire born to privilege. His humble working class origins -- his father was a chauffeur, his mother a maid -- his attendance at Morehouse College, a quintessential "Black-identified" university, and his "up-by-his-bootstraps" rise through a succession of American companies in the face of white racism could his give him real "street cred." Democrats have extolled Obama's election as a moral triumph for their party, but the ability of white-dominated Republicans, including the Tea Party, to praise and support a Black GOP candidate unequivocally could go a long way to minimizing this advantage. It might also cause a higher-than-average percentage of Blacks, now suffering double-digit unemployment and increasingly disaffected from Obama, to take a serious look at Cain should he somehow become the GOP nominee. Maybe not the 33% that Cain suggests, but enough to make a real difference in Red states that Obama managed to capture last time.

Yes, we Cain?