Is Herman Cain the New Tea-Party Favorite for 2012?

After months of relative obscurity, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO now ranks third in the latest polling from Fox News

Herman Cain speaking - Hyungwon Kang : Reuters - banner.jpg

Mitt Romney, save for a late conversion, never seemed to care much about getting tea-party votes.

Rick Perry, the Texas governor who entered the GOP presidential race last month, figured to supply a tea-party alternative to Romney at the top of the race. But after three debates in which his rivals attacked him relentlessly, it became clear that Perry's executive order requiring HPV vaccines for girls in Texas might undermine some of his small-government, libertarian credibility -- a must-have, along with a dedication to lower spending, for anyone seeking the support of tea partiers in 2012.

But the third-place candidate in the Republican presidential primary, according to the latest Fox News poll, is none other than Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza. He might just be the most formidable, and formidably pure, tea partier vying for the GOP's White House nomination.

Cain has rated as a back-bencher in 2012 surveys, collecting no more than eight percent in any major, reputable survey since mid-June. But Fox's latest, released on Thursday, placed Cain higher in the running than he's been at any other point:

Mitt Romney        23%
Rick Perry         19%
Herman Cain        17%
Newt Gingrich      11%
Ron Paul            6%
Jon Huntsman        4%
Michele Bachmann    3%
Rick Santorum       3%

What's noticeable about this poll, other than a tectonic shift between Perry and Romney at the very top, is that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) plummeted, while Cain rose.

Until now, Bachmann has laid solid claim to the tea-party mantle for 2012. In style and in substance, the Minnesota congresswoman has fit the zeitgeist of the movement, promising to cut spending and taxes and to limit the size and scope of the federal government, presenting those ideas with charismatic force and the anti-Obama indignance that has characterized the movement.

"I would go over to the Department of Education, I'd turn off the lights, I would lock the door and I would send all the money back to the states and localities," she promised during the last GOP presidential debate, co-hosted by Fox News and Google last week. For a time, Bachmann seemed to have a legitimate shot at winning the race, as she topped Iowa polls earlier this summer.

Now, Cain has supplanted her, using some of the same advantages: Cain is charismatic at debates, and he deftly presents a small-government vision that clearly holds an appeal among Republican primary voters.

If more polls corroborate Bachmann's sharp decline, Cain will find himself carrying new significance in the 2012 contest.

Almost every debate moderator asks candidates about their specific plans to revitalize the U.S. economy. Cain has the catchiest, by far: his "9-9-9 plan" to institute a nine-percent corporate tax rate, a nine-percent flat income tax, and a nine-percent national sales tax. He's probably the most charismatic candidate onstage, and he's undeniably likeable. As he mentions -- often -- he's the only candidate who's not a career politician.

"In terms of believing in this nation, Ronald Reagan was the one who said that we are a shining city on a hill. We've slid down the side of that hill," Cain said during the last debate, drawing laughs from the audience.

After struggling for screen-time in those nationally televised forums along with former House speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, Cain has made the most of his appearances.

Quirky as he is, Cain seems to be catching on. And, like Bachmann, he's a good fit for tea partiers, both in style and substance.

Image credit: Hyungwon Kang/Reuters