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Cain not running on empty; South could be pivotal
HOMEWOOD, Ala. (AP) ' Herman Cain's rise in the polls appears to be no fluke.
Unlike some other Republican presidential contenders who have flamed out after auditioning as the conservative antidote to Mitt Romney, Cain is still riding high atop public opinion surveys.
"They said I was the flavor of the week," the Georgia businessman said at an appearance Friday on a campaign swing through Alabama. "But four weeks later the Cain campaign still tastes good!"
Cain lacks the money and organization of his top tier GOP competitors. But so far, he's survived several high-profile campaign blunders and an onslaught of attacks on his signature 9-9-9 tax overhaul plan. And he's doing things his own way.
Cain has carved out an unorthodox ' some say impossible ' path to the White House, largely eschewing early voting states to focus heavily on the South. It's a region where tea party groups, social conservatives and evangelical voters that make up the backbone of his support hold sway.
Cain hasn't set foot in Iowa or New Hampshire for weeks. Instead, he's barnstormed through Tennessee and Alabama, states that don't hold primaries until March.
"The South looks very, very good for us," Mark Block, Cain's campaign manager, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Do the early states matter? Of course. But they are not everything."
Block argues that next year's compressed primary calendar means more states will play larger roles. So instead of scurrying around New Hampshire trying to win over skeptics, the campaign team is revving up support in states where Cain's small government, anti-tax message and church revival-style delivery resonate with voters.
Cain was trying to show that in Alabama, where enthusiastic, overflow crowds greeted him at every stop. In Talladega, residents were visibly excited by the first visit from a presidential candidate in modern memory.
"I heard that FDR waved from the train once when he came through," said Jeanne Rasco, who had turned out for a packed Cain rally at a historic theater on the city square. "I think it shows he cares about our values. He's one of us," she said.
Cain himself plays up his Southern roots: His drawl grows a little thicker and he mentions God a little more frequently, to suit the crowd. "I am in Alabama because Alabama matters," Cain said at the state's party headquarters. "Ya'll are my neighbors."
In the South, some Cain supporters say that supporting an African-American could turn long-held racial perceptions around. No Deep South states supported Barack Obama in 2008 and elected representatives in the state have become more racially polarized in recent years.
Scott Beason, a Republican Alabama state senator, said a Cain victory, especially in the Deep South, would be a visible sign of progress.
"It would change the stereotypes that still exist about how people make their decisions down here," Beason said. "I think it's ironic that he will do better here than in the so-called enlightened states up north." ''What folks are doing is listening to what is he saying and he is not afraid to say what he thinks."
But is the Cain bubble going to burst?
Cain himself says no and mocks rumors that he's simply in the race to promote his brand. "I've written some books," he said. "I don't want no TV show."
Follow Shannon McCaffrey at www.twitter.comsmccaffrey13