WASHINGTON - Herman Cain, suddenly surging in popularity among Republican primary voters, was the candidate to watch on Tuesday night as the party held yet another presidential debate in a race that has become an endlessly entertaining political roller-coaster ride.
"I can connect with people's pain because I was po' before I was poor," the one-time pizza magnate said near the end of the New Hampshire debate when asked how he can relate to Americans struggling during tough economic times.
Cain is the latest saviour for fickle primary voters who swooned over, then soon soured on, Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry respectively before setting their sights on Cain. They're now hoping he might be a viable alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney as the candidate who might deny U.S. President Barack Obama a second term in 2012.
A Bloomberg News-Washington Post poll released Tuesday put Cain, 65, in second place at 16 per cent of support among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Mitt Romney's in front at 24 per cent, and Perry's in third at 13 per cent.
Other polls are equally sunny for Cain. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday has him tied with Romney among Virginia Republicans. Another survey, by the American Research Group, has him ahead of the former Massachusetts governor by one percentage point.
But with success has come scrutiny from his rivals for the nomination. Throughout Tuesday's debate, Cain was challenged repeatedly on his so-called 9-9-9 tax plan that calls for a flat nine per cent rate on corporate and personal income and a national sales tax.
Jon Huntsman, the one-time Utah governor, said the plan sounded like the price of a pizza. Cain replied that his plan "didn't come off a pizza box."
Bachman quipped: "When you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the detail."
But Cain never missed an opportunity to praise his plan.
"My 9-9-9 plan is simple, transparent, efficient, fair and neutral," Cain said during the debate, asking Romney if his economic plan meets similar criteria.
Cain, indeed, hasn't lacked confidence over the past few days, seemingly revelling in his newfound popularity. He's even released a memoir entitled: "This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House."
"Get ready for an aberration of historic proportion," Cain said on CNN earlier this week.
Cain's boost in the polls has come despite recent remarks that have landed him in hot water, in particular his comments about the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
"Don't blame Wall Street," Cain said last week. "Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself."
But it's the black businessman's clashes with the African-American community that have been most startling. The bad blood has prompted the type of racially charged verbal skirmishes that erupted only occasionally when Obama, the country's first African-American president, won the White House in 2008.
Harry Belafonte, the entertainer and political activist, has assailed Cain for his insistence that racism no longer holds back black people in the United States.
In a clip to air Friday on CNN, Belafonte told Joy Behar that Cain was a "bad apple" who does not represent the African-American community.
The man who once called former secretary of state Colin Powell a "house slave" went further.
"It's very hard to comment on somebody who is so denied intelligence, and certainly who is denied a view of history, such as he reveals," Belafonte said.
"He knows very little. Because he happened to have good fortune, because he happened to have had a moment when he broke through _ the moment someone blinked _ does not make him the authority on the plight of people of color."
Belafonte pointed out the disproportionately high prison incarceration rate for young black males, among other social ills faced by the African-American community.
Cain brushed off Belafonte's remarks.
"As far as Harry Belafonte's comment, look, I left the Democratic plantation a long time ago," Cain said in an interview on Fox News.
Cain has also raised the ire of the black community for his recent remarks that African-Americans have been "brainwashed" into voting Democrat.
"I think he needs to get off the symbolic crackpot," said Cornell West, a prominent liberal African American academic.
But in a radio interview on the afternoon of the debate, Cain went even further, accusing liberal Democrats in the black community of being "racist" for questioning his political leanings.
"A lot of these liberal, leftist folk in this country that are black _ they're more racist than the white people that they're claiming to be racist," Cain said on conservative Neal Boortz's talk show.
"How dare Herman Cain, first, run as a Republican? How dare Herman Cain be conservative? And how dare he move up in the polls, so that he just might challenge our beloved Obama? That's the problem they have."
Cain added he could trounce Obama in a presidential election, saying he has far more bona fides as a black man than the president does.
"He's never been part of the black experience in America," Cain said before trotting out the phrase he used hours later in the New Hampshire showdown. "I can talk about that. I can talk about what it really meant to be po' before I was poor."