Can Cain Sustain the Big Mo?

The GOP nominating contest has featured several conservative candidates who created some excitement, achieved good polling numbers, and then came rapidly down to earth. This list includes Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry. The establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, has plowed ahead, with solid debate performances and steady polling numbers.

Now, Herman Cain -- the candidate who, several months back, seemed one of the least likely to mount a challenge to Romney for the nomination -- has pulled about even with him in the GOP race, and has become the darling, for the moment, of those who want a more conservative GOP nominee than Romney. Cain has replaced Perry, who had supplanted Bachmann on the right side.

Can Cain continue his charge, and become a real contender for the nomination, now that his candidacy and his signature issue -- wiping out the federal tax code, and replacing it with his 9-9-9 plan -- are getting more scrutiny? Cain’s appeal has several elements. In the debates, where several GOP candidates have unloaded on either Mitt Romney or Rick Perry, he has stayed positive. He communicates a warmth and optimism that stand out in a period when an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong  track. Compared to Romney, who is seen by  many on the GOP side as a smart, capable businessman/politician whose views are malleable and can change as political circumstances warrant, Cain comes off as authentic and solid.

And then there is the 9-9-9 plan, a single phrase that has become the only campaign program of any of the candidates that can be easily identified and paired with that candidate.

Cain has bolted to the top of the race while several other conservative contenders, with little or no chance to be nominated, remain in the race.  If Bachmann does not win Iowa, or Santorum finishes way off the pace there, both will likely be gone from the race.  If Perry does very poorly in Iowa, it could be the death knell to his chances. If Cain finishes first or a close second in Iowa, and winds up as the principal conservative standard-bearer against Romney , he will still have a shot at the nomination, even if Romney wins both Iowa and New Hampshire. As the race moves towards primary days with several states voting the same day, if Cain maintains  high approval ratings and popularity, he could win some states, even if he is not well organized on the ground and has little ability to match Romney’s campaign spending.

However, the scenario just laid out is the most optimistic one than can be derived  for the Cain candidacy. There are many stumbling blocks along the way.  The biggest may be the 9-9-9 plan. Many people who have tried to run the numbers have concluded two things about  the plan: it is highly regressive, compared to the current tax code, and is likely to produce less revenue than the current system, not accounting for any growth bonus (more revenue from faster economic growth).