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Herman Cain leaps to front of GOP primary pack. Can he stay there?

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Cain and Romney at the Republican debate in Hanover, N.H. (AP)

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is now officially leading the pack, surpassing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by three points in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released late Wednesday.

The survey of Republican voters, conducted between October 6-10 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent, shows Cain leading with 27 percent over Romney's 24 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry--who led the polls mere weeks ago-- is now in third place, with 16 percent. In the same poll taken in July and August, support for Cain hovered around just 5 percent.

Cain's surge began last month when he won the Florida straw poll after a strong debate performance in Orlando. Perry, once viewed as the conservative alternative to Romney, has yet to recover from this shift in the primary cycle's dynamics. Now, it's Cain's turn to try and fulfill the role of Romney spoiler.

Cain's rise has been unorthodox. Since he announced his candidacy last spring, Cain's campaign strategy has looked more like a self-promotion tour than a run for the White House, at least in the traditional sense. Instead of focusing on early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Cain has instead transformed his campaign into a nation-wide book tour to promote his new memoir. Despite his recent surge, Cain plans to continue the tour--he's heading to Tennessee next--and he defends it as a viable grassroots campaign strategy.

"Signing books helps to raise my name I.D.," Cain said after signing books in South Carolina on Sunday, according to The Hill newspaper. "As a matter of fact, it's not inconsistent to be on a book tour signing books as well as campaigning. Because we have integrated campaign events along with events related to this."

The shift has also altered the way he's treated on the campaign trail. Cain is no longer ignored or only mentioned as an afterthought in the election cycle. And for the first time, it appears the other candidates are starting to view Cain as an actual threat.

At the Republican debate in Hanover, New Hampshire on Tuesday, Cain took up most of the air time, as his opponents took him to task for his "9-9-9 Plan," which would replace the current tax code with three nine-percent federal taxes on income, business and consumption. Over the course of the debate the candidates and moderators said the word "nine" 85 times, which offered Cain a fresh opportunity to tout his idea on national television every few minutes.

But "9-9-9"--the idea that has helped his rise to the top--could be the very thing that takes him down. A Bloomberg analysis concluded that the plan was "unrealistic" and would increase federal budget deficits. Further, you can bet that Cain's opponents are preparing to increase their attacks on the plan in the days leading up to the Republican debate in Nevada next week.

Of course, this isn't the first time that a successful businessman has stormed to the forefront of our national politics courtesy of a wonky bit of sloganeering. In 1992, Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot mounted a third-party run at the presidency via a single-minded focus on the budget deficit--and a lot of generous cable news coverage. While the Perot precedent was an insurgent movement outside the major-party primary system, unlike Cain's GOP effort, it still highlights how volatile the early phase of a presidential contest can be--and how much of an asset sustained media exposure and at outsider image can be in a season of widespread economic unrest and disenchantment with the status quo.

Meanwhile Cain insists he's prepared for the onslaught that comes with cracking the top tier of the GOP field.

"When you run for president and you move into the top tier . . . you get this bull's-eye on your back," Cain said last week. "This long shot may not be a long shot any longer."

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