Herman Cain steps out of his campaign bus to at a rally where he unveiled his "Opportunity Zone" economic plan in front of the Michigan Central Station, an abandoned train depot, October 21, 2011 in Detroit, Mich. (Bill Pugliano/GETTY IMAGES)

— Herman Cain scanned his overwhelmingly white tea party audience, jammed into a hall at a rural fairgrounds, and offered his assessment.

“I see 3,000 patriots here tonight,” he boomed, the crowd leaping to its feet. “I don’t see any racists!”

Cain relishes the opportunity to provoke as a black conservative. The Republican presidential hopeful often volunteers in his speeches that he is not angry at the country that enslaved his great-grandparents. He proclaims that he “left the Democrat plantation a long time ago.” He quips that he is not the GOP’s “flavor of the week” but a tried-and-true flavor, “black walnut.”

Four years after Barack Obama campaigned for president, steering clear of provocative statements about race, Cain has floated to the top of presidential polls doing just the opposite. He jokes about race with irreverence. And he aims his ire not at whites but at blacks he believes have become irrationally attached to the Democratic Party.

His overt references to race come in a political landscape that has changed dramatically since Obama became the nation’s first black president. Cain now ranks at the top of several GOP polls, and in a recent Associated Press poll, more respondents expressed aversion to voting for a Mormon than for an African American.

Throughout his life, Cain has remained connected to his African American roots, attending an all-black college and serving as an associate minister at a prominent African American church in Atlanta, where he also sings gospel music. But race has not played a major role in his political activity. He sat out the civil rights movement and entered politics primarily because of his concern about taxes on business.

Cain’s supporters say they welcome the chance to support a candidate with whom they agree on the issues but who also is black. They cite his rise from the Atlanta projects to the corporate board rooms as exemplifying the conservative ideal of self-reliance.

And his status as a front-runner, they say, rebuts the idea that their dislike of Obama stems from racial antipathy.

“This is 2011. We’re not 1965 anymore,” said Eva Rushton, 52, who is white and was among several hundred supporters attending Cain’s recent speech at the county fairgrounds. “It’s not about race.”

Like other black conservatives, Cain plays down racism and emphasizes personal responsibility. But his message carries particular resonance because of his stature in the presidential race.

Some African Americans have bristled at his tone, saying he is denigrating his race. Particularly controversial were his statements that many blacks were “brainwashed” into supporting the Democratic Party and that he did not believe that racism in this country still “holds anybody back in a big way.”

“He’s engaging in a very dangerous, irresponsible type of rhetoric,” said Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia state conference of the NAACP. “It’s almost like he feels the need to be accepted in a different class or community, and somehow, by portraying his own race or portraying the poor as a problem, it’s going to advance his cause. I think he’s going to find that that’s not true.”

Spokesman J.D. Gordon responded that Cain “has often said that it is not about color, it is about content. Mr. Cain is breaking down tired stereotypes of how people should think and vote based upon race and ethnicity.”

‘Stayed out of trouble’

Cain, 65, spent his early years in the shadow of segregation. He was raised in a government-subsidized apartment complex in downtown Atlanta and later moved with his family to a brick home in the city’s Collier Heights neighborhood, a planned community that drew middle-class African American families.

In his memoir, “This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House,” Cain writes fondly of his time at Morehouse College — an all-male, black institution attended by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights luminaries. He credits his success in part to the fact that the college was exclusively African American.

He graduated in 1967, in the thick of the civil rights movement. But former classmates recall that while many students were demonstrating, Cain focused on his studies and the part-time jobs he needed to cover tuition.

“I just kept going to school, doing what I was supposed to do, and stayed out of trouble,” Cain wrote of his teenage years, saying he supported the civil rights movement but “didn’t go downtown and try to participate in sit-ins.”

Ronald English, who graduated from Morehouse with Cain, remembers his old friend as a conscientious student and a devout Christian.

“I do feel he has been unjustly called an Uncle Tom or someone who laid back and sat on his butt during the civil rights movement, when in fact it is more fair to know that he had the concern for getting a quality education,” said English, who teaches at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. “He also wanted to meet the expectations of his family and their modest means. That did not afford a lot of extras.”

English and other friends say they are not surprised that Cain became politically conservative. But some said they were dismayed at his recent rhetoric on race, particularly the comment about black Democrats being “brainwashed.”

“That’s off center,” said Marcellus C. Barksdale, an African American studies professor at Morehouse who also attended the college with Cain. “It surprises me in the sense that it reflects a kind of narrow-mindedness.”

Cain says that some of the sharpest discrimination he has felt is not from whites, but from fellow blacks intolerant of his conservative views.

In an interview, Cain said he had voted Democratic for much of his young-adult life because of the party’s support of the civil rights movement. He became an independent as he began to climb the corporate ladder. Then in 1996, he campaigned for his friend Jack Kemp, the Republican vice presidential nominee that year.

Cain recalled joining Kemp for a campaign event in Harlem, where a crowd of Democratic demonstrators had gathered outside.

“There was a very large muscular black guy standing in the crowd,” he said. “And there were about seven or eight of us who were black who were with Jack. And this black guy said, ‘Black Republicans?’ — real loud, I’ll never forget it — ‘Black Republicans? There’s no such thing as a black Republican. You guys must be Uncle Toms.’ ”

The man’s insult “haunted me,” Cain said. A week later, he was driving by the voter registration office and, on a whim, changed his designation to Republican.

“You want to know why? Nobody will tell me how to think. Or what my beliefs are. Or what my party affiliation ought to be,” he said. “I was so resentful of that expectation of what I ought to do. In defiance of that expectation, I registered as a Republican.”

Community involvement

Even as Cain became more involved in Republican politics, he remained involved in the African American community. During his time as chief executive at Godfather’s Pizza in Omaha, he was an active member of the Urban League, which advocates economic empowerment for minorities.

Cain is a longtime member and associate minister of Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta, which was founded by freed slaves in 1877 and has grown into one of the city’s most prominent black churches. The pastor, the Rev. Cameron M. Alexander, helped lead bus boycotts during the civil rights movement. He was a powerful force in Cain’s life and advised him when he was considering running for Senate in 2004.

In a recent interview, Cain called Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas his model of an ideal jurist. Unlike Thomas, who is opposed to affirmative action, Cain has said some affirmative action is appropriate. Cain also supports the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is controversial among conservatives for requiring some states to clear with the U.S. Justice Department any change that affects voting. On Friday, he unveiled a plan aimed at revitalizing inner cities.

Sean Norris, 46, a financial consultant who recently took a day off work to see the candidate speak near Memphis, concluded that many of Cain’s policies were just “hype.” But Norris, who is black, appreciated at least one of Cain’s statements: the line about the “Democrat plantation.”

“I think it needs to be addressed more in minority and black politics,” Norris said. “Has that association delivered us our needs?”

While campaigning four years ago, Obama took a subtler approach to race. He made his most in-depth remarks on the subject in a March 2008 speech, when he sought to deflect mounting controversy over his association with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had made critical statements about the United States because of its history of slavery and segregation.

Cain broached the controversial subject of black authenticity by contrasting his background with that of Obama, whose mother was white and who spent time as a child in Indonesia. In a radio interview with conservative talk-show host Neal Boortz, Cain agreed with Boortz that Obama has “never been a part of the black experience in black America. I can talk about that. I can talk about what it really meant to be po’ before I was poor. He can’t.”

That comment drew criticism, as have other Cain remarks. He has called the tax code the “21st-century version of slavery.” When Boortz noted that his rise in the polls won him a more central placement on the stage at a debate, Cain joked, “It’s kind of like, I’m moving up from the back of the bus, man!”

In his public appearances, Cain often slips into vernacular in a way that strikes some as authentic and others as playing on a stereotype. Drawing on years as a minister, a gospel singer and a radio talk-show host, Cain works the crowd, lacing his policy pitches with jokes and colloquialisms.

As he bounded onto the stage at the county fairgrounds in Waverly, Cain gripped the microphone and offered a folksy greeting: “Aw, shucky ducky!”

He peppered his 35-minute speech with personal anecdotes. At one point, he extolled the importance of keeping national security secrets by telling a story of a childhood incident in which he hinted to a bully that he had a weapon in his pocket.

“I grew up in a tough part of Atlanta,” he said. “And sometimes I was confronted by some bullies that beat me and my brother up. So I put my hands in my pockets, but I didn’t tell them what was in my pocket. Rocked back and forth on my heels and said, ‘Sucka, if you feel froggy, then just jump!’”

Cain closed the speech with a gospel song, delivered in the baritone that his Morehouse classmates still remember.

“ ‘Amazing Grace’ will always be my song of praise, for it was grace that brought me liberty,” he intoned. “I’ll never know why Jesus came to love me so. He looked beyond all my faults and saw my needs.”

News researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.