Is Herman Cain's race the real elephant in the room?

OPINION - Perhaps race explains why Herman Cain is not regarded as a serious frontrunner in the GOP presidential primaries...

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is on fire these days. The former pizza mogul-turned-presidential hopeful scored an impressive first place showing in the recent Presidency 5 straw poll in Florida. Coming from the bottom of the heap of the GOP pack to number one is no easy feat. But people are asking whether his presence at the top is a fleeting and a mere flicker, or if Cain is in it for the long haul.

Moreover, despite his impressive showing, the prevailing wisdom suggests the race is still a match between Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for frontrunner status. Given his popularity, the question remains whether Herman Cain’s race remains the impediment to his capturing the Republican nomination.

There is no question that Cain is well-liked among the current GOP field, dubbed by the Washington Post as the “Miss Congeniality” of the party. A new Zogby poll puts Cain at the top with 28 percent, followed by Perry with 18 percent and Romney at 17 percent. While another recent Fox News poll places him at a still strong third place nationally. Michele Bachmann continues to plummet, from a first place rating of 34 percent on June 30 to 4 percent now. These shifting fortunes suggest a softening of the field, questions concerning the electability of some candidates, and the voters’ desire for alternatives to Perry and Romney.

“Folks, this is what you call momentum,” Cain said recently of his fortunes in a campaign video message. “The Herman Cain train is picking up steam.”

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Cain’s popularity among the Tea Party is attributed to his bedrock conservative positions and his positioning as a consummate outsider lacking a Washington pedigree. His up-by-the-bootstraps narrative is appealing to the Republican base, as a man who grew up poor and rose through the corporate ranks to become the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza. And he is a survivor of liver and colon cancer who was given a 30 percent chance to live.

“I’m a Tea Party guy, and there’s a reason Mr. Cain is a Tea Party favorite. Unlike other Republican primary voters, the Tea Party is looking for very specific things from candidates, and Mr. Cain’s 9-9-9 tax formula resonates with us,” said Fred Pasek, a Cain supporter in the Baltimore Sun.

Under Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, there would be a flat 9 percent income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax and a 9 percent national sales tax. The candidate says his tax overhaul “is a major step towards tearing the chains off the backs of the American people.” The concept is simple enough to put on a bumper sticker, and conservatives are taking notice.

Cain believes in reducing government, cutting entitlements, and eliminating “excessive” environmental and financial regulations. Further, he would repeal President Obama’s health care reform in favor of free market approaches. And Cain has expressed a reluctance to include Muslims in his administration.

Pasek believes Cain has far more than 15 minutes of fame coming his way. “We like the fact that he talks more like a businessman than a politician. To those of us in the private sector, his way of speaking tends to sound more genuine than the typical double talk we hear from career politicians.”

Cain has insisted that his race should not be a factor. After all, he resists being called African-American, preferring American instead. Further, he has defended the Tea Party over allegations of racism.

For example, Morgan Freeman characterized the Tea Party as “a racist thing.” As Freeman said on the CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, “The Tea Partiers who are controlling the Republican Party…their stated policy, publicly stated, is to do whatever it takes to see to it that Obama only serves one term. What underlines that? Screw the country. We are going to do…whatever we can to get this black man out of here.”

When pressed, he added, “It is a racist thing. It just shows the weak, dark underside of America.”

Cain responded to Freeman’s assertions. “I just think it’s sad that they’re so short-sighted in really understanding what the whole Tea Party citizen movement is about. I’m not offended by it because it doesn’t slow down my momentum. It doesn’t slow down the reaction that I get from people,” Cain said.

“So name-calling is something that’s going to continue in this because they don’t know how to stop this movement. And this movement is making a big difference in politics because a lot of the traditional Democrats are moving to the center or moving over to vote for conservatives. They’re taking another look at a Herman Cain,” he added.

Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh recently said that Cain could become America’s first authentically black president. While Cain would not accuse the Tea Party of racism, he has alleged that President Obama’s supporters play the race card. “While I don’t believe that Barack Obama used racial issues to get elected, I do believe that many of his supporters selectively use race to cover up some of his failures,” Cain said in his upcoming memoir to be released next week, This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House. “Whenever President Obama is criticized over policy mistakes, his surrogates tend to play the race card, as if there’s supposed to be something inherently morally wrong in such criticism.”

At one point in the race, Bachmann was considered the frontrunner, at least before Perry entered the race. Her star has faded, but she was taken seriously as recently as a few months ago. But apparently some political observers within the party are writing off Cain, or at least downplaying his ascendancy. Sarah Palin referred to “Herb” Cain as the “flavor of the week” during an appearance on Fox News.

“Rather than being the flavor of the week, people are saying, ah, there is more to that flavor than meets the eye,” Cain responded in a CBS interview. “I have a message that is resonating with the American people, the voters,” he said. Cain denies claims that his Florida victory was a fluke.

Moreover, Cain — who thinks African-Americans are “brainwashed” into voting Democratic and not considering a conservative point of view — believes he can peel off one third of the black vote from President Obama.

This, as white liberals are reportedly abandoning Obama. Melissa Harris-Perry suggests that these voters hold the president to a higher standard than other White House incumbents who preceded him, such as Bill Clinton.

While some look to Cain’s Florida win as proof that racism is dead in the Republican Party, others perceive it as evidence that it is flourishing and not being challenged. Mo’Kelly believes that Cain — with his anti-Muslim sentiment, and his characterization of Obama as someone who was raised in Kenya and born out of the mainstream — provides Republicans with a “leather couch” to make them more comfortable in their bias.

But ultimately, as far as Cain’s presidential prospects are concerned, race may very well be the elephant in the room. Alan Keyes, who has decried black accusations of racism and has denied the role of race in the Tea Party, blamed racism for the lack of media attention on his 2000 presidential campaign.

“The people of this country have gotten over their racial sickness — I don’t know that you folks have,” Keyes said to a group of reporters in New Hampshire in 1999. The far-right fringe candidate added, “I think that merit means nothing to you because you can’t look past race. And I think I’m deadly sick of it.”

“I think these polls are phony to begin with. They are a manipulated result aimed at trying to usurp and preempt the choice of the American people,” he added.

Brit Hume of Fox News Channel noted that “there are other black political figures, Republican and Democrat alike — Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell being signal examples — who have not experienced this problem.”

“I refuse to play the role of a racial politician. And because I refuse to play the role of a racial politician, you are refusing to take seriously my impact, and the strong constituency that I’ve built in the Republican party, and the things that I articulate better than anyone else in this country today,” Keyes said.

Keyes received 14 percent of the vote in the 2000 Iowa Caucus. Whether racism played a role in his campaign failure is anyone’s guess. However, race might explain a deficit of support for black GOP candidates.

It is worth noting that of the over 30 black Republican congressional candidates running in 2010, only two were victorious —Tim Scott of South Carolina and Allen West of Florida. Whites did not vote for them in these primarily majority-white districts.

A 2006 Yale study found that that white Republicans were 25 percentage points likelier to vote for a Democratic senatorial candidate than a black Republican opponent. Further, from 1982 through 2000, most white independents voted for a white candidate when the Republican was black.

Maybe a number of these black candidates were inexperienced, poor campaigners and not very competitive. At the same time, perhaps their race was the elephant in the room, and the party did not support them. And perhaps race explains why Herman Cain is not regarded as a serious frontrunner in the GOP presidential primaries.