JACKSON, Tenn. — Herman Cain is firing up the crowd at a tea party rally in this West Tennessee town when the generator powering his sound system shudders to a halt.
Cain stands awkwardly for a few moments then suddenly begins to sing. Slowly at first but gaining in speed, he belts out "Impossible Dream" in the rich baritone he's honed in church choir.
"You know, when it's your rally, you can do what you want to do!" Cain says as he finishes with a raucous laugh. The 500 or so supporters who have jammed the strip mall parking lot to hear the Republican Party's newest star speak roar their approval.
Momentum restored, Cain launches into a pitch for his signature 9-9-9 tax plan, and the crowd is right there with him, chanting 9-9-9 along with the Georgia businessman.
The 65-year-old's improbable campaign for the presidency is all about momentum right now. How does he maintain the wave he's riding in recent polls that have catapulted him from an also-ran in the GOP race to the elite top tier?
There are many reasons his bid could fade as quickly as it rose. He acknowledged Friday that he will trail former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry significantly in fundraising. Cain has never held elected office and could wilt under the rigors of the campaign trail and the withering scrutiny coming his way.
But Cain's moment is right now, and the former Godfather's pizza chief executive is marketing himself with practiced skill, banking on his charisma and the notion that the messenger is as important as the message.
His everyman image is resonating.
"In the field right now, he's the most like me," said Jimmy Hoppers, a 60-year-old physician from Jackson, who was hoping to meet Cain so he could hand deliver a $1,000 donation to his campaign. "He's run a business and paid the bills. He's authentic."
On Friday night Cain, who is African-American, drew about 2,000 people — some in workshirts and overalls and nearly all white — to a feed barn in rural Waverly, Tenn.
This is a socially conservative country and Cain — ever the salesman — knows his audience. He closes by invoking God and singing the hymn "He Looked Beyond My Faults."
"I love him," gushed truck driver James Bland after Cain spoke. "He doesn't talk down to you. I think he gets the working man."
"And it makes me so happy that he's put God back into things," chimed in Bland's wife, Karen.
In a year of anti-government fervor, Cain is casting himself as the anti-politician Main Street candidate who would bring common-sense business know-how to the bureaucratic thick of Washington. The former conservative radio show host is brash and straight-talking, saying that "stupid people are ruining America." He mimics liberals with a high-pitched whiny voice.
"Well, he doesn't have foreign policy experience," he says to laughs. "And the guy we have in there now does?"
Cain doesn't ignore the race issue, saying that some critics have called him "a racist" and an "Oreo" for leaving the "Democrat plantation."
"I have grown up telling it like it is and I am going to continue to tell it like it is," he said at a campaign rally in a suburb of Memphis, where he was born. "I don't talk politician."
Voters are responding
He drew large and enthusiastic crowds Friday as he kicked off a two-day bus tour in Tennessee, hopscotching to a trio of tea party events across the state.
Tea party activists make up the backbone of Cain's support and he speaks their language fluently. "My fellow patriots," he begins some sentences. References to freedom and liberty pepper his remarks.
He dives into an anecdote about the Constitution and takes a jab at President Barack Obama.
"You know what? I kinda like my guns and my Bible," he says.
And at every turn, he stresses his business background, noting that at a recent debate fellow Republican candidates dismissed his 9-9-9 tax plan as politically dead on arrival.
"Politicians put together things that will pass. Businessmen put together plans that solve the problems," he said.
Indeed, Cain's 9-9-9 plan seems to have put him on the map.
Following the rally in Jackson, Cain bolted off the stage and shook hands with onlookers, including Linda Fowler-Cole, who had wandered over after a shopping trip to Lowe's and was wearing a T-shirt with an oversized picture of Obama
"I heard the 9-9-9 guy was here and I came to take a look," the Democrat said. "I like Obama, but that 9-9-9 is catchy."
In Bartlett, Tenn., Cain drew a number of black supporters who were excited at the prospect of a conservative African-American of his stature.
"To me he represents what Martin Luther King was talking about when he talked about his dream," Reginald Tooley, a 49-year-old physical therapist from Memphis, said. "With hard work and self-reliance you can do anything you want."
Cain says he has been buoyed by support from regular folks.
"You just don't know how much this encourages me, the fact that you all came out tonight," he said in Waverly.
"You see, this is what the folks in D.C. don't get because they don't come out here to meet with you."
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