ATLANTA — Reveling in the national spotlight, Herman Cain is pledging to bolster his fledgling White House campaign.
He'll need to — and quickly — if he has any hope of winning the Republican nomination. The unlikely presidential contender has little campaign organization in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states where voting begins in less than three months. And he hasn't done much else in those places to capitalize on his recent surge in polls.
"We are now going to ramp up," Cain promised this week.
By that he means executing what aides call a 50-state strategy — for a nomination contest that's determined state by state. It's a nontraditional path that other candidates have tried unsuccessfully. Cain's campaign, which can seem almost overwhelmed by the attention that comes with a big rise in polls, argues that competing in the early voting states, while important, is not the only way to win the party's nomination.
His aides note that Barack Obama's 2008 campaign fanned out across the country and was successful. But Obama competed vigorously in the early voting states, too.
Still, Cain, who never has held political office, clearly has struck a chord with a part of the Republican electorate craving a fresh face not tied to the GOP establishment. This is the first presidential contest since the tea party's rise, and Cain is in many ways the natural culmination of the grass-roots movement: a straight-talking political outsider, espousing an anti-tax platform.
"The conservative wing of the Republican Party has been auditioning for an anti-Romney alternative for months now," former GOP strategist Dan Schnur said. "They've tried Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, and they both wilted under the scrutiny. So far, Herman Cain seems to be holding his own."
Atlanta Tea Party Patriots co-founder Debbie Dooley explains it this way: "With Herman, what you see is what you get."
There's no telling how long the love for Cain will last or whether he can turn the buzz into votes on primary and caucus nights this winter. It takes more than enthusiasm to win the presidency. It takes money and organization, and Cain trails his top GOP rivals on both fronts.
Earlier this year, Cain had to lend his campaign $500,000 to stay afloat. He'll report his fundraising for the past three months within days. He is suggesting that money will no longer be a problem and says he now has enough to expand his campaign.
"I didn't want to get out in front and commit to spending a whole lot of money before I knew that the American people were going to say, 'You know what? This long shot may not be such a long shot," Cain says.
His shoestrings campaign has a certain improvised feel as it scrambles to hire staff and keep pace with the intense media interest enveloping the former head of Godfather's Pizza since he cruised past Romney in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
In New Hampshire this week, Cain's new press spokesman J.D. Gordon, sheepishly admitted to a throng of reporters that he didn't know the specifics about the candidate's schedule that same afternoon, nor the last time Cain had been in the state.
Cain has kept a nontraditional schedule.
With his popularity climbing last month, he eschewed the campaign trail for bookstores as part of a tour to promote his new memoir.
And Thursday, as the new poll showed him leading the pack, Cain didn't beeline it to Iowa to try to capitalize on it as expected. Instead, he made a relatively low-key appearance in Ohio at a Christian university. And on Friday, he was launching a bus tour through Tennessee.
Neither state holds a primary until March — two months after voting begins.
Cain argues that he's not ignoring the early states, and insists that he's adding staff and building campaigns in them.
He was an early visitor to Iowa, making his first trip to the leadoff caucus state in summer 2010. But Cain hasn't visited since the state GOP's presidential test vote Aug. 13. And his campaign there has been beset by staffing woes.
Three top Iowa aides, including one of the state's leading tea party organizers, quit Cain's campaign in June, unhappy with the candidate's apparent lack of commitment to appearing in the state. His Iowa campaign also tried to conceal the role of a top caucus adviser who had been ousted as the leader of a gay-pride group in Wisconsin amid a financial scandal with the organization, the former employee alleged in a letter and court testimony related to his application for unemployment.
Jeff Jorgenson, a Cain backer from Council Bluffs, acknowledged the Georgia businessman "does not have a well-grounded Iowa organization."
"I don't think that's hurt him yet," Jorgenson said. But he added that Cain would need a strong ground game to do well in the January caucuses.
In closely following New Hampshire, Cain has two paid staffers, compared to more than 10 each in the state for Romney and Perry. Cain also trails former Gov. Jon Huntsman and Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul in paid staffers there.
Cain's aides insist he has visited the state 18 times. But that doesn't match the perception of Republicans on the ground, who say he's been noticeably absent as other candidates flock to the first-in-the-nation primary state. That said, when he does appear, people in New Hampshire say they generally like what they hear.
"Herman Cain really impressed me," said Republican state Rep. Keith Murphy, who was on hand as Cain and other presidential contenders briefly addressed the New Hampshire House of Representatives this week. "I have to do some more research into his positions on these issues, but as far as the ability to communicate a conservative message, he's actually very good."
Cain has laid some groundwork in Nevada, which is slated to hold the third contest with its caucuses. He won a test vote over the summer and has earned endorsements from some tea party leaders.
In South Carolina, William Head has been Cain's lone paid staffer since July. But there are fresh signs of life. The campaign opened a headquarters in Columbia on Friday, and Head said there will be three paid staff in the state by next week.
"The operation is growing with such a rate we're rushing to keep up with the pace," Head said.
Peoples reported from Concord, N.H. Associated Press writers Tom Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa; Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C., and Cristina Silva in Las Vegas, Nev., contributed.
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