It was not so long ago that the idea of having a black president was unimaginable. That changed with the election of Barack Obama.

In the run-up to the 2008 election, Obama was the “outsider” who pundits said lacked political experience. Democrats and Republicans alike thought he would never pull it off. Senator Hillary Clinton, with her political prowess and perceived electability, was a safe pair of hands.

NBC Poll: Cain leads in S.C.; tight Fla. race with Romney

Though in the months leading to the polls, Obama’s campaign gained momentum. His superior oratory, clear vision and skillful use of the Internet to fundraise and mobilize support created a new wave of activism among minorities and young voters.

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Fast forward four years and now in the midst of an economic crisis, political strife and a summer of discontent another African-American politician is gaining notoriety ahead of the 2012 presidential election.

Herman Cain, the former pizza executive, has captivated the media and is the Republican Party’s new darling. Opinion polls show a surge in Cain’s popularity and suggest he is now head-to-head with frontrunner former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

A CNN poll released Tuesday shows Republican voters now trust Herman Cain more than Mitt Romney to fix the economy. But in the same poll 51 percent of Republicans believed Romney would win the nomination. And a new NBC poll has Cain leading his GOP rivals in South Carolina.

An African-American who is now a serious candidate in the Republican presidential primary race? This leads to the question: Why? Has Barack Obama’s unexpected success opened doors for Herman Cain?
Despite widespread disapproval of Obama’s handling of economy in the “post Obama era” voters can now see “a black president is not implausible,” said Andra Gillespie, a political professor at Emory University.

“A decade ago that wasn’t the case and most people thought they’d never see a black president, at least not in their lifetime,” said Professor Gillespie.

African-Americans have run for political office well before Obama, with the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Alan Keyes taking center stage but “If it wasn’t for Obama’s legacy Herman Cain may have been a footnote in the Presidential race. He hasn’t held political office and nobody would have given him a realistic chance of getting this far,” said Gillespie.

Zoltan L. Hajnal, a politics professor at the University of California who has written a book exploring the impact of black mayoral leadership on white voting behavior, said black incumbency provides concrete information that disproves the fears and expectations of many white residents.

“My research suggests that a positive experience under black elected officials teaches many white residents that they have little to fear from black leadership and the black community more broadly” said Professor Hajnal, author of Changing White Attitudes toward Black Political Leadership.

“That learning process leads to marked improvement in white racial attitudes in national public opinion surveys and often dramatic swings in the white vote in local electoral contests,” said Hajnal.

Though there are other issues at play which has helped Cain’s rise to the top of the polls, said Professor Gillespie.

He is a great salesman, “who markets himself well” and “the simplicity of his 9-9-9 tax plan has resonated with voters,” said Gillespie.

The Georgia businessman is also a “convenient” candidate for the Tea Party, “who is keen to disassociate themselves from allegations of racism,” she added.

One of the big separators of Cain and Obama is that they are polls apart on the political spectrum with opposing values and ideologies.

Whereas, Obama is relatively young, sophisticated and more measured in his tone. Cain has received intense scrutiny over his tough immigration stance, such as comments made about building an electric fence around the U.S.-Mexico border and using alligator-filled moats to keep illegal immigrants out.

His critics say his 9-9-9 tax plan would raise taxes on low and middle income families.

Could America be on the brink of electing its second black president in Herman Cain. Unlikely, but as they say in politics anything can happen. Cain’s biggest challenge will be winning the Republican nomination.

With the eyes of the world on Tuesday evenings GOP Republican Presidential debate; most analysts said Cain fought his corner, with a vigorous defense of his 9-9-9 plan which received intense criticism.

But some commentators say Cain’s risen too fast, peaked early and it is only a matter of time before he burns. Others say, unlike Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, he doesn’t have the campaign staff, funds and resources to last the course.

Whatever happens in the run up to the election, Cain’s unexpected early success is already a turning point for the Republican Party.