Cain hopes to keep momentum building in Iowa today

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has a lot to gain but also a lot to prove in Iowa between now and the Jan. 3 caucuses, political observers say.

Cain has surged in the polls in recent days, moving in closely on perceived frontrunner Mitt Romney while other candidates have fallen behind. But Cain hasn’t been in Iowa since the Ames Straw Poll in August, and will return to the state this Saturday for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s fall banquet in Des Moines.

Cain will join U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum at the event.

“It’s a great opportunity for him to try to capitalize on some of this and people that are maybe giving him a look for the first time, to some degree because of the debates and the poll numbers,” said Matt Strawn, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.

Strawn, who is neutral in the GOP nomination race, said it’s been interesting to travel around the state and see what Iowans think of Cain.

“With Herman Cain it’s fascinating,” he said. “Going around to counties there is tremendous interest in him but it’s still the Iowa ‘but i haven’t met him yet, I haven’t had a chance to kick the tires, I haven’t had a chance to look him in the eye.’ So I think you’re going to see even greater volatility leading into the caucus.”

Carol Hunter, politics editor at The Des Moines Register, agreed that Cain still must prove himself to Iowans.

“One thing we have seen again and again with Iowans is they’re pretty discerning, they take their vetting seriously,” Hunter said. “And Herman Cain now is going to have to come back with sort of these gaudy poll numbers, carrying them, and live up to voters’ expectations when they start asking him harder questions about details of his policies.”

Ann Selzer of the Selzer and Company opinion research firm said Cain is just the latest in a cycle of candidates surging in popularity. She noted Bachmann enjoyed good poll numbers after the first debate but was then overtaken by Perry. And now Cain seems to have unseated Perry on that merry-go-round.

“Herman Cain has been consistently strong, he rouses a room,” Selzer said. “If you saw him up the straw poll, good heavens, it was a palpable good filling among people who support him and people who thought maybe in the future they might.”

Steffen Schmidt, a politics professor at Iowa State University, said Cain has benefited from offering an easy to remember economic plan, but that could also be his undoing.

“Herman Cain has an extremely vulnerable and flawed plan here and I think the other Republican candidates for president nailed him on that at the Las Vegas debate,” Schmidt said. “If implemented it would pretty much raise everybody’s taxes except the rich that would get a fantastic, enormous tax cut. Are you really going to be able to sell that?”

Schmidt said Republicans “haven’t found their golden frontrunner,” which is contributing to support for some candidates moving wildly in the polls. But he doesn’t believe Cain will win the nomination.

“My feeling is that Herman Cain may be another place where Republicans park themselves and now they’re going to have to decide, is it Mitt Romney, is it Cain, is it Perry that we want,” he said. “There’s nobody else going to come in.”

Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said she’s surprised at this point in the campaign it’s Herman Cain that is surging in the polls.

“That just seems a little odd to me, because it seems like a lot of that’s driven by emotion and by this time I’m surprised that that’s where it still is,” Dvorsky said. “That the policy things haven’t begun as we get closer to the actual standing up in a row and pulling the lever. Not that there’s been this sort of person of the month kind of thing, that doesn’t surprise me. But the fact that at this late of a date it’s Mr. Cain, that surprises me.”

Schmidt said Cain’s campaign could collapse if people start picking apart his economic plan, noting “Jan. 3 is still a lifetime away in politics.” And Selzer said it’s too early to tell what may happen.

“In the end I expect to see more volatility between now and then,” she said. “I think this race has a long way to go and then we’ll see in the end how it all shakes out.”

Dvorsky, Hunter, Selzer and Strawn made their comments Friday at a lecture at Iowa State University entitled, “Horse Race Journalism: Polls, Politics, Policy and Political Advertising.”