As presidential contender Herman Cain launched a bus tour across Tennessee this weekend, his advisers couldn’t explain why he would spend precious time in a state that is far down the list of crucial primaries.

Moments away from an appearance at a diner in Concord, N.H., Cain’s people didn’t know the name or address of the place.

And Cain’s organization is so thin in key early states that one New Hampshire strategist said that when activists have asked where to learn more about the candidate, there was no one in the state to refer them to.

In a year when Republican voters are willing to give candidates a chance regardless of money, experience or campaign muscle, Cain more than anyone is testing how far a presidential campaign can go with very little of any of those things. He has rocketed 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.

Cain is trying to do something about this. He boosted his field staff this month to 35 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.

Message, not money

He also revels in his small operation. Making a virtue out of necessity, Cain scoffed at the resources that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have invested in Florida — where Cain’s win of a Republican straw poll a few weeks ago launched his ascent in the polls.

“Message is more important than money,” Cain boomed to reporters gathered at the New Hampshire state capitol last week. “Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney spent a lot of money trying to influence the outcome of that straw poll. We rented a bus and drove around the state delivering a message of common-sense solutions. And it worked. And you’re going to see that same bus right here in New Hampshire.”

He said Saturday that his modest fundraising numbers for the third quarter — $2.8 million — do not reflect the outpouring of support he has received in the past two weeks.

“Money isn’t what’s driving my momentum; my message is driving my momentum,” Cain said during his Tennessee swing.

If his 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 Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) to Perry and, this month, to Cain — illustrates a central tension of the 2012 nomination.

“If Facebook could be used to topple the Egyptian government, then perhaps Herman Cain can use it to win Iowa,” said Phil Musser, a Republican strategist who most recently worked for the short-lived presidential bid of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. “Thus far, the traditional approach to running for president in 2012 has paid few dividends, and the old must-dos have proven to be less important milestones than expected.”

Cain has become known for a three-digit slogan: “9-9-9,” the name of his proposed overhaul of the federal tax code. But beyond that three-point proposal, he offers neither details on policies nor a vision of the kind of president he would be. He has virtually no field operation in key early states. And his advisers appear overwhelmed and unprepared for the demands of a national campaign, offering as an explanation for the Tennessee trip the fact that Cain is popular among country-music singers.

There’s also little evidence that Cain is turning to nontraditional organizational tools to keep his momentum going. He has more than 270,000 followers on Facebook and about 119,000 on Twitter, but these numbers are in the ballpark, and in some cases lower, than those of his leading rivals. In other words, if Cain has the potential to foment a social-networking revolution as an alternative to traditional organizing, it hasn’t started yet.

Rich Killion, a longtime Republican strategist in New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first primary, said he has seen no evidence of a Cain organization since the campaign lost its grass-roots director, Matt Murphy, over the summer.

“If people asked me, either press or activists, where to get information about Cain, I didn’t know where to send them,” Killion said. “I often just sent them to the Republican Party.”

Similarly, in Iowa, where caucuses will kick off the election season Jan. 3, there is little evidence that Cain is making connections with the pastors or single-issue activists on such topics as abortion, home schooling and the fair-tax movement who help candidates build support.

On-the-ground network

Such organizations are crucial to getting the word out to voters — and drawing them to polls or caucuses when voting is underway. In New Hampshire, Killion said, votes are won and lost in individual conversations. He gave the example of a Rotary Club member who tells his friends over breakfast about the candidate he likes; if the voter hasn’t met the candidate, or at least someone from the campaign, that conversation is less likely to take place.

“Organization does matter,” Killion said. “Organization captures openings, opportunities, and harnesses momentum into action, which helps you build and follow up and create an operation on the ground with people who are your activists and evangelists and your inspiration for others to get involved. It means a lot in New Hampshire.”

Such connections are even more crucial in the caucuses, when one passionate supporter can be responsible for bringing a dozen or more voters out on a cold, wintry night.

“It’s not like a primary when you can show up there a week in advance and cast an absentee ballot,” said a Republican operative in Iowa for a rival campaign who is not authorized to speak to the media. “If the doors close, you don’t vote. There is one time, one chance. “

There is almost a revolutionary zeal to Cain’s supporters. They value Cain’s conservative convictions and the fact that his 9-9-9 plan, scoffed at by economists and his rivals for the nomination, appears fresh and bold. They see in Cain someone willing to cut through the dysfunction of Washington.

“We’ve had promises, platitudes, bumper stickers galore,” said state Rep. Jordan Ulery, one of five New Hampshire lawmakers who endorsed Cain this month. “This is a man who presents common-sense solutions. ”

But Republicans this year are fickle. And even as they refuse, so far, to rally behind Romney, whose support has remained steady — but less than strong — for much of the year, they have proved just as unwilling to rally around anyone else for more than a few weeks.

Cain said he hopes to break that cycle. And for now he is reveling in the moment.

“I won!” Cain exclaimed at an appearance with reporters in Concord, referring to his victory in the Florida straw poll a few weeks ago. “That’s a theme here: I win. Many American people are saying, ‘You know what? This long shot may not be such a long shot.’ ”

Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.