CONCORD, N.H. — Herman Cain basked Wednesday in the glow that attends top-tier contenders in New Hampshire and began scrambling to assemble the sort of staff needed to capitalize on a surge that has blindsided Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican rivals.
“You know you must be doing something right when you get a lot of arrows in your back,” said Cain, a former pizza company executive. “But this if the first time arrows have felt really, really good.”
Tuesday’s debate showed Cain emerging as a bull’s-eye and policy pacesetter. And his rise was driven home Wednesday night when a new poll showed him leading the GOP pack among voters nationally, with 27 percent of the vote, to Mitt Romney’s 23 percent. The result of the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, taken Oct. 6-10, was within the poll’s error margin of 5.4 percentage points, though.
For Perry, bad reviews from Tuesday’s debate continued to pour in. His strategist, Dave Carney, said the governor improved his performance and emphasized that debates alone won’t decide which Republican will take on President Barack Obama. But the poll had more bad news, with Perry at 16 percent; he led the race slightly more than a month ago.
It was Cain’s moment Wednesday, and he took a victory lap at the state Capitol. He said he’s determined not to suffer the fate of other Republicans who have seen bursts of excitement and popularity slip away, notably Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, as voters search for an alternative to Mitt Romney.
“Will I be the flavor of the week?” Cain said. “The answer is an emphatic ’No.’ Haagen-Dazs black walnut tastes good all of the time.”
Turning buzz into victory, though, will require a more disciplined and organized effort than Cain has mounted so far. His staff currently numbers about 35, he said, mostly in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, though political operatives and journalists have seen little evidence of an operation even on that modest scale. Only two are in New Hampshire.
“As we speak, we are ramping up,” he said. “We now have the money to do so.”
Jamie Burnett, an unaligned New Hampshire GOP strategist who served as Romney’s state political director in 2008, said Cain will have a hard time taking full advantage of his newfound popularity, after months of running, in effect, a one-man insurgency.
“Cain has no national infrastructure to sustain front-runner numbers,” he said.
Perry can’t be counted out, not with $15 million in the bank. And if he could win in Iowa, where caucuses are planned for Jan. 3, he could survive a loss to Romney in New Hampshire and take the fight to South Carolina.
But “he’s probably done in New Hampshire,” Burnett said, adding that for Romney’s adversaries, the only real hope left is that he stumbles on his own.
At the moment, Cain’s operation is disorganized and skeletal. His website, for instance, is mostly devoid of real-time information on his public appearances. And he hasn’t yet gotten a thorough vetting by rivals and the news media.
But an aide said Cain has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars a day since winning the Florida straw poll nearly two weeks ago.
Rick Santorum, among others, kept up the pressure on Cain over his signature “9-9-9” tax overhaul plan, which would replace the current federal tax system with 9 percent rates on personal and corporate income, and create a national sales tax.
Santorum warned that, despite Cain’s claims that most taxpayers would pay less, the plan would only tempt Democrats in Congress to ratchet up rates in the future.
“9-9-9 will turn into 19-19-19 in no time,” the former Pennsylvania senator said after a rally with social conservatives in Concord. “To me, it borders on naivete.”
He and Cain each spoke to the state Legislature for 10 minutes, as did Newt Gingrich and Bachmann. Perry headed to Indiana, where he spoke to Republicans.
Cain’s greeting was especially enthusiastic, though he has made few inroads among Granite State lawmakers compared to Romney, who has spent years cultivating relationships.
“I know that many of you support him,” Cain said. “Those of you who do not—I’m asking for your support. And for those of you that do support him, I’m asking you to reconsider.”
Carney dismissed talk that Perry was overshadowed at the Dartmouth debate. “The topic was economics, and his record is stellar on that,” he said. “It’s not really an issue that people want to take him on on.”
Pundits, however, were merciless.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst, gave Perry a D-minus. Jokes made the rounds that Perry, having failed to get enough rest before his first three debates, somehow managed to sleep through this one. Analysts pored over his malapropism, such as the one about how “untrustworthy” Americans are, and his insistence on “opening up a lot of the areas of our domestic energy area.”
“Debates don’t drive elections,” Carney said. “We did well. The governor did better, and that’s what his goal was: Do better.”
Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, an influential social conservative group, said the race “is still fluid.”
Perkins said Perry remains a “solid candidate. He’s been able to raise money, and obviously money is still a key factor. I don’t think Perry’s going to go anywhere.”