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Herman Cain may have to fight to stay in spotlight in Tuesday’s Republican debate

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LAS VEGAS — Herman Cain is surely hoping that his surge to the top of the 2012 Republican presidential field means that he will continue to feel the heat of the spotlight at the latest debate, which will unfold Tuesday night at the Venetian casino on the Las Vegas strip.

But the Georgia businessman will have to fight for the privilege of being banged up like an outright frontrunner. The latest in a succession of candidates to rocket to the top of polls, Cain has yet to prove that his rise will last any longer than his predecessors.

The massive media attention Cain has attracted over the past two weeks has been tough: deep criticism of his 9-9-9 tax-reform plan; critical assessments of his campaign’s organization; a third-quarter fundraising report that shows that he's got a fraction of the war chest of his two leading rivals, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Cain will have had a good night, in other words, if he continues to attract scrutiny on those issues — and does a good job explaining himself. The alternative — less attention than he got in the last debate in New Hampshire, when his poll standings gave him the coveted center position on the stage — could start the narrative that Cain, like those who came before him, is already losing his top position.

Cain has zoomed to the top of polls with a gift for oratory, a brimming confidence on the debate stage and a conservative orthodoxy that has stirred the passions of a growing slice of the Republican base. But his tiny organization is barely keeping up with the onslaught that has come since he was anointed a top-tier candidate.

He is trying to do something about this. He boosted to 35 his field staff this month spanning more than a half-dozen early states. He concedes that even more will be necessary to compete in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first two nominating contests will take place in less than three months. He is focused on building his name recognition, a particular weakness for the former Godfather’s Pizza executive, who was known by less than 20 percent of the electorate just a few months ago.

He also revels in his small operation. Making a virtue out of necessity, Cain scoffed at the resources that Romney and Perry have invested in Florida - where Cain’s win of a Republican straw poll a few weeks ago launched his ascent.

If Cain’s campaign bears few of the features traditionally used to measure the success of a presidential operation, it remains unclear how much those conventional strengths matter in this volatile election cycle.

By those measures, Romney, with his organization, money, campaign experience and 160-page economic plan, should have sealed the nomination weeks ago. The fact that he hasn’t — and that Republican voters have careened from one alternative to the next, from Donald Trump to Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) to Perry and, this month, to Cain — illustrates a central tension of the 2012 nomination.

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