Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is at the center of a media firestorm after revelations he was accused of sexual harassment in the 1990s. Although details of the allegations continue to trickle out, several polls show him near the head of the Republican pack. But for many political watchers, there's a lingering question: Is Herman Cain serious?
Cain doesn't fit the mold of a typical presidential candidate — and he's proud of it.
"I am an unconventional candidate and, yes, I do have a sense of humor and some people have a problem with that," he said Monday, the morning after the initial report of sexual harassment claims against him. "To quote my chief of staff and all of the people that I talk to around this country, 'Herman be Herman.' And Herman is going to stay Herman."
Herman being Herman includes saying some pretty wild things on the campaign trail.
"Well, when I'm in charge of the fence — we're going to have a fence. It's going to be 20 feet high. It's going to have barbed wire on the top," he said recently. "It's going to be electrocuted, electrified. And there's going to be a sign on the other side that says, 'It will kill you.'"
Cain later said he was joking. Then there was his interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. He was asked if he was ready for gotcha questions about the names of world leaders.
"When they ask me who's the president of Ubekki bekki beki beki stan stan, I'm going to say, 'You know, I don't know. Do you know?' And then I am going to say, 'How is that going to create one job?'" he said.
But these gaffes, or jokes aren't what confuse political professionals. What has them scratching their heads is the way Cain is running his campaign — not spending much time in critical early voting states like Iowa.
Cain was in Alabama last week even though more than 20 states choose their nominee before Alabama does in mid-March. He told the crowd some were questioning his trip.
"Every time one of the skeptics goes on TV and talks about all of the reasons that Herman Cain can't win: He's a nice guy. He came up with one cutesy idea 9-9-9. But he can't get the nomination," he said. "Well, the American people have a different idea."
Craig Robinson, editor in chief of theiowarepublican.com and a former political director of the state Republican Party, says Cain's strategy doesn't make any sense.
"If you're campaigning in a state that's not one of the early states at this time where we're only 60 days out from an election," said Robinson, who isn't affiliated with any of the candidates. "It tells me that you're more interested in creating name ID, selling books, and improving your own brand instead of your own chances of being the republican nominee."
An e-mail to the Cain campaign about questions of seriousness didn't get a response. But on Thursday, the campaign launched a fundraising drive aiming to raise $999,000 to amp up its presence in Iowa.
Two new polls done since the scandal broke show Cain leading in South Carolina and nationally. Pollster Scott Rasmussen says GOP voters are fundamentally rejecting the status quo.
"It's almost as if they're saying, 'We know that Herman Cain has had some trouble talking about issues like Afghanistan and abortion. He's having trouble responding to these allegations. But then again he couldn't possibly do any worse than the guys who have driven us so far in debt over the past few generations,'" he said.
This primary campaign has been unpredictable.
"Do I think his campaign strategy makes sense? There's a lot of things about his campaign that have struck me as troubling or off the wall," Rasmussen said. "But then again, despite all of those things, he's leading in the polls."
Rasmussen says 20 years ago, he would have said there was no chance someone like Cain could win the nomination — someone without a big campaign infrastructure, focused on national media instead of the traditional precinct-by-precinct organizing in Iowa and New Hampshire. But today, he's not so sure.