Herman Cain: Flash in the Pan or “Serious Candidate”?

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks to the media outside of Trump Towers on October 3, 2011 in New York City.

Even by the standards of a strange and unpredictable Republican primary season, it’s amazing to see an African American former pizza mogul vault into the top tier of the 2012 GOP field, at least as measured by several recent national polls. The question is whether the sudden rise of Herman Cain is a passing fluke, or something more revealing about the Republican field.

The answer may be some of both. There’s no doubt that Cain is delighting conservative voters with his winning charm and his killer debate skills, not to mention his catchy–some say gimmicky, and reckless–“999” plan for a flat tax and sales tax. “Voters have responded to the way the way that Herman Cain is offering ideas,” says Republican pollster David Winston, who adds that Cain has also benefited from strong debate performances and avoided the constant intramural bickering of his rivals.

That said, even Cain’s admirers know he is a  long shot to win the nomination, much less the presidency. Which is why his surge appears to represent a protest by party activists against the anointing of Mitt Romney, whose conservative bona fides they’ve never trusted, and disappointment with their would-be savior, Rick Perry. There is also lingering suspicion that Cain might be running more to promote himself than to get elected–a subject I asked him about when he visited TIME’s offices this week for an interview and photo shoot for a forthcoming print magazine profile.

Cain showed up at our midtown offices fresh from a meeting with Donald Trump–whose own pseudo-campaign had a notoriously unserious whiff to it. (“We hit it off immediately,” Cain said of Trump, adding that the two men had exchanged phone numbers.) Cain was joined by a pair of campaign aides, including his chief of staff and former Wisconsin Tea Party organizer Mark Block, as well as a Simon & Shuster publicist working on the book tour Cain has just begun.

Although Cain couldn’t have been expected to time his book’s release, it’s an odd moment for him to be away from the campaign trail. With his candidacy suddenly surging, Cain has no near-term plans to visit Iowa or New Hampshire, lending credence to the complaints of top campaign aides in both those states who quit this summer that Cain wasn’t making a serious effort in either one. (Cain’s top two communications aides also just left the campaign.)

So I pressed Cain on whether he’s truly in it to win it–or simply on a grand self-promotional tour as even some of his allies suggest. Cain took friendly umbrage at the question. “I am a serious candidate for President,” he said. ” I didn’t need to do anything to self-promote myself at this point in my life… My wife and I are very comfortable.” Cain said that he has visited Iowa 18 times this year. But because he doesn’t have deep campaign coffers, he said, he can’t pass up free media opportunities in Manhattan, where he was due to appear later that night on “Hannity,” and on “The View” the next day. (Watch Barbara Walters coo over his tax plan here.). “I have to try and increase my national name I.D., which is why I have to take advantage of some of this media,” Cain said. He also noted that “there’s a lot of money in New York,” perhaps a nod to his attendance later that day at a “Monday Meeting” gathering organized by the conservative financier-activist Mallory Factor.

Cain has certainly earned a moment in the sun, and once he’s saturated the national media in the coming days, maybe he’ll rejoin the campaign trail in earnest. The best way for Cain to prove he’s a serious candidate–and not just the latest flash-in the-pan candidate–is to campaign like one.