Washington (CNN) -- As the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination has begun to come into sharper focus, an unlikely figure has emerged.
"Herman Cain is surprising us all," Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, told CNN. Kremer quickly added that her organization is not ready to support a candidate yet and the tea party movement "hasn't really coalesced behind anybody."
"But," continued Kremer, "Herman Cain is doing a major thing right now. He's got a lot of momentum. A lot of people like him. He's a straight talker. He's a businessman. And that's what people like. He knows how to run a business. He knows how to create jobs. He knows about profits. . . . He's got some traction right now so I think he's one to watch."
Indeed, CNN's latest poll of polls on the GOP race, an average of the three latest national surveys from this week, shows former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with the support of 20% of likely Republican primary voters. Cain is at 17%, followed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 15%.
And Cain's rise has apparently come directly at Perry's expense -- "Recent polls show Cain gaining at least 12 points and Perry dropping by about that much," explained CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
The dynamic is not a new one in the GOP White House race.
Romney emerged early as the front-runner, but Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann was the early favorite with conservatives and the tea party movement. When Bachmann announced in a CNN debate in June that she was jumping into the race, she surged into second place in most polls.
In mid-August, Bachmann won the closely watched Iowa Straw Poll but that was overshadowed by Perry jumping into the race on the same day.
Perry jumped to the top of most national polls shortly after getting into the race. But a couple of lackluster debate performances brought him back into the pack.
So what's behind a rising Cain?
On the surface, the spike in his polling comes on the heels of Perry's meteoric rise and equally meteoric fall. After Perry's shaky showing in a debate in Florida last month, Cain pulled out a surprise win at a Florida GOP straw poll the day after. At the time, GOP activists who voted in the straw poll told CNN they had come ready to vote for Perry but switched to Cain, their second choice in many instances, after Perry faltered in the debate.
Cain's biography has an inherent appeal -- especially in these tough economic and fiscal times when faith in government and political leaders is at a low.
Cain, who is African-American, is not a career politician -- a fact he frequently touts. Instead, he has a business background and is the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza. And he's a quintessentially self-made man: He comes from modest working-class roots in Atlanta, and attended college and graduate school in computer science before eventually making his way onto the executive track.
Cain is also a survivor of Stage 4 cancer, an experience that has led him to be an outspoken critic of the President Barack Obama's health care reform bill. At the Florida debate three weeks ago, Cain attributed his survival up against daunting odds to the fact that he was able to get the necessary treatment in less than a year's time.
"I'm here five years cancer-free, because I could do it on my timetable and not a bureaucrat's timetable," Cain said when asked about an earlier statement that he would have died if the Democratic plan had been in place in 2006 when he was diagnosed.
Recently, Cain hosted his own radio talk show in the Atlanta area, potentially giving him a built-in base of supporters in Atlanta's conservative suburbs. And as his presidential campaign has taken flight, he's promoted his book, "This Is Herman Cain!: My Journey to the White House," which was released Monday.
On the policy front, Cain is the proponent of what he's dubbed his "9-9-9" plan for reforming the tax code. The plan calls for a 9% federal income tax, a 9% federal corporate tax, and the creation of a new 9% national sales tax.
"My plan is bold," Cain said on CNN's "American Morning" soon after his straw poll win, "because it throws out the tax code."
He added that "9-9-9" "replaces all of the taxes that now people grapple with and it provides certainty to the business community, which is what they're looking for in order to grow this economy."
Cain's biography and tax policy may be playing a role in his recent poll, according to one GOP strategist.
"Governor Romney has solidified his position in the race as one of the front-runners," said Dan Ronayne, who previously worked for the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and President George W. Bush's re-election campaign. "And there appears to be a contest to identify who would be a conservative alternative. Cain has performed very well in the debates and he seems to be solidifying himself in that contest."
Ronayne also observes that "there is an appetite for someone who is an outsider and someone who can talk about being a job creator." But, he added, that there is concern among the GOP base about Cain's readiness on policy issues, particularly foreign policy.
Earlier this year, Cain stumbled during a discussion about the Middle East peace process when asked a question on Fox News about the Palestinian right of return. He's made controversial comments about Islam and Muslims -- comments which forced him to issue a public apology after a visit with Muslim leaders at a mosque in the Washington metro area.
And questions remain about his "9-9-9" plan -- like whether it can generate enough revenue to fund the federal government, whether it is politically viable in the current climate with much concern about funding Social Security and Medicare in the decades to come, and whether Americans will go for the idea of a national sales tax.
Known for his penchant for straight talk on the campaign trail and during the debates, Cain can also be a bit of an enigma when it comes to Republican orthodoxy. While he expounds policies that seem tailor-made to appeal to the fiscally conscious tea party movement, Cain also is not afraid to break with his party.
"We should not play politics with tragedies," Cain said on CNN's "American Morning" during a late September Capitol Hill funding fight over disaster relief precipitated by Republicans in the House.
And, orthodoxy aside, Cain is more outspoken than most of his fellow GOP contenders.
"Don't blame Wall Street," Cain said of the growing "Occupy Wall Street" movement in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Wednesday, "Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself."
Asked Thursday about those comments during a book signing event, Cain didn't back down. "If you are envious of somebody who happens to be rich, that you call a fat cat, go and get rich," Cain said, "instead of expecting them to walk outside their office and write you a check. That's not the way America works. Work for it!"
While Cain may be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Romney and Perry in recent national polls, he has yet to show either the fundraising muscle or the political organization that are at the disposal of his fellow top-tier rivals. And like Obama before him, Cain may have to negotiate the tricky issue of race as he ascends to the national political stage -- a task made even more treacherous by the GOP's complicated relationship with the African-American community.
At this point, one thing is certain: Cain's unique mix of biography, oratory, personality and policy is striking a chord with the GOP base just as the Republican White House field is being clarified by the recent decisions of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin not to seek the party's nod, and by doubts about Perry's readiness.
Another certainty? The months ahead before the first votes are cast in the GOP primary race leave plenty of time for the dynamics of the Republican race to change yet again. Cain could fail to consolidate early interest and support with conservatives and see his poll numbers slide as a result, like Bachmann and Perry.
"There is an awful long way to go," says Ronayne, who now works in public relations in Washington and isn't currently supporting any candidate in the GOP race. "If this was a movie, we haven't even gotten to the good parts yet. The action is just starting."