Washington (CNN) -- As the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination has come into sharper focus, an unlikely figure has emerged -- former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain.
A CNN poll of polls indicates that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is on top of the GOP field of candidates at 23%, and Cain is just three points behind. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was a front-runner in the national polls from late August through much of September, trails Cain at 14%. The CNN poll of polls is an average of the latest four national surveys in the GOP race. It was compiled and released Thursday,
Appearing on "Erin Burnett Outfront," Cain explained his rise to CNN. "I believe that this happened for two reasons. . . . First, it demonstrates that the voice of the people is more important than the voice of the media, with all due respect," he said Thursday, adding, "The second key message is message is more powerful than money. I have not spent, nor have I been able to raise, the kind of money that my major competitors have. But yet we have been competitive because of the strength of my message, and the specificity of the solution that I put on the table."
The solution Cain is referring to is his "9-9-9" tax plan, whose catchy name has become his virtual political trademark. The plan calls for doing away with almost all of the existing tax code and replacing it with a 9% flat federal individual income tax, a 9% flat federal corporate tax, and a new 9% national sales tax that Cain would institute.
Cain has insisted that "9-9-9" will raise as much revenue for the federal government as the current tax code and that his plan will not cause lower-income taxpayers to pay more than they do under the current system. But economists have raised serious questions about his plan, and Cain's campaign has provided scant details about it.
Notwithstanding these questions, "9-9-9" has gained political traction and become a target of Cain's Republican rivals and even of the White House.
"That's standing on its head what Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, had in mind when he proposed a national income tax that'd be progressive," Vice President Joe Biden said of Cain's plan Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America."
And "9-9-9" dominated discussion at Tuesday's Bloomberg TV/Washington Post/WBIN-TV GOP presidential debate.
"The 9-9-9 plan that I have proposed is simple, transparent, efficient, fair, and neutral," Cain declared during the debate.
But many of his rivals used the debate to attack "9-9-9."
"I think it's a catchy phrase. In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard it," former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman joked during the debate. "We need something that's doable, doable, doable."
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum suggested that the public would not support a new national sales tax and touched on an increasing conservative criticism of "9-9-9" -- that it gives the federal government a new revenue stream without any guarantee that the individual or corporate tax rates will stay at 9% as Cain envisions.
In response to direct questioning from Cain about his own more complicated economic plan, Romney suggested that "9-9-9" was too simple. "Herman," Romney said to Cain, "I have had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems. And I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate."
And Rep. Michele Bachmann's attack quite literally turned "9-9-9" on its head. In a reference to 666, a symbol commonly associated with Satan, Bachmann quipped during the debate: "And one thing I would say is, when you take the '9-9-9' plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the details."
A leading fiscal conservative group, however, came out in favor of the plan Friday.
While "9-9-9" has put Cain at the center of the GOP's debate over the economy, it is perhaps too simple an explanation for Cain's recent rise.
"Herman Cain is surprising us all," Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, told CNN recently. 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."
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. He comes from modest working-class roots in Atlanta, and he 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 President Obama's health care reform. At a GOP debate in Florida in late September, Cain attributed his survival 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 earlier this month.
Cain's biography and tax policy may be playing a role in his recent poll, according to one GOP strategist.
"Gov. 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 is not backing any 2012 candidate. "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 observed that "there is an appetite for someone who is an outsider and someone who can talk about being a job creator."
And the volatile dynamics of the GOP race may have also fueled Cain's surge.
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.
After Perry's shaky showing in a debate in Florida late 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.
Perry's slide in national polling in the past four weeks has been accompanied by an almost point-by-point increase in support for Cain.
Cain still faces many challenges and is the target of much criticism. His "9-9-9" plan has been criticized from both ends of the political spectrum, and he also has been criticized for seeming as interested in promoting his new book as his White House bid.
Cain has yet to show fundraising on par with Romney, Perry or Rep. Ron Paul. On the policy front, Ronayne says there are concerns in the GOP base about Cain's foreign policy chops.
Known for his penchant for straight talk on the campaign trail and during the debates, Cain has recently spoken out against the Occupy Wall Street movement, a move that could make him a target of progressives, organized labor and national Democrats as he seeks the Oval Office. 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 has struck a chord with the GOP base -- just as the party's presidential field seems set.
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.
For now, Cain is basking in the spotlight of his front-runner status. He is already publicly thinking about who he might tap for the vice presidential spot on the GOP ticket if he is the party's nominee.
Before a recent gathering of social conservatives, Cain told the audience that the rest of the field is afraid, "that this long shot may not be a long shot any longer."