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Herman Cain: How high can he rise?

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Businessman Herman Cain is surging in the GOP presidential race, rising as high as 17 percent in the most recent Fox News Channel/Opinion Dynamics national poll.

That’s nearly triple the support that Cain won in the last Fox poll and puts him in a statistical tie with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped into second place (19 percent) behind Mitt Romney (23 percent)

Ever since his straw poll win in Florida last weekend, it’s been pretty clear that Cain has some momentum. His communications director, Ellen Carmichael, said the campaign is “consistently raising several hundred thousand dollars a day.”

But can Cain — tongue-twister! — keep rising into the top tier? Or is he the “flavor of the month,” as Sarah Palin put it earlier this week? (She also repeatedly referred to the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO as “Herb” Cain.)

A look at other polling in the race offers some clues.

Gallup has consistently shown Cain has the highest “positive intensity score” in the GOP field — that is, of the people who know him, the gap between those who like him and those who don’t is bigger than for any other candidate.

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The problem for Cain has long been the first part of that last sentence — no one knows him. Only 51 percent of people recognized him in the most recent Gallup poll, while about 80 percent are familiar with most of his top competitors.

So, if you extrapolate his current favorable rating out to 80 percent name recognition, it would seem that the sky is the limit for Cain. Given how much people like him now, a little fundraising bump and the extra press he’s getting these days should only increase his name recognition, and he would seem to have some real room to grow.

That also ignores reality somewhat. To date, Cain has benefited from his second-tier status. Few of the top tier candidates have taken him seriously, and he hasn’t gotten anywhere near the kind of scrutiny the frontrunners have. Thus, his amiable and entertaining style is essentially all people know, and his lack of political experience hasn’t been an issue.

When the former Godfather’s pizza CEO did get some attention early in the race, it wasn’t good. Cain took considerable flak for saying that he wouldn’t hire a Muslim in his cabinet, on foreign policy issues, and for suggesting alligators and barbed wire fences be put at the U.S. border with Mexico.

For Cain, all of his hopes are predicated on Iowa.

Polling there, while somewhat dated, has shown much the same thing as national polling — Cain is well-liked by those who know him, but still not very well-known.

That could — and should — change, of course.

“Any time you win a straw poll like he did in Florida and you have a good debate like he did in Florida, people are definitely paying attention here in Iowa,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential conservative in the state. “I have heard positive things about Herman Cain in the past couple days, with people excited about his candidacy.”

Cain’s business background, conservative bona fides and oratorical abilities could give him a real appeal in a state where one-on-one retail politics matter and many voters value beliefs over electability.

But while Cain has visited the state many times, he has never built the organizational structure necessary to turn out supporters. As evidence, he finished fifth in the Ames Straw Poll.. Some of his top Iowa staffers quit, saying Cain had not put forth the effort he had promised.

“He had a lot of early support and a lot of momentum, and then it all just kind of evaporated because he wasn’t here in the state and wasn’t collecting it,” said Chuck Laudner, another conservative activist. “If he wants to get turnout in the caucus, he’s going to have to have a campaign and a turnout mechanism.”

If he tries, though, it’s pretty apparent Cain could win back some of those fans.

”I think maybe the window’s reopened a little” for Cain, said Republican strategist John Stineman. “While Bachmann has to stanch some bleeding, he has the opportunity to gain.”

Cain, for better or worse, is entering a new stage in his campaign. And while he’s the popular guy everyone wants to get to know, the onus is on him to impress those people and show them he’s also a capable politician.

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