Herman Cain is at the top of national and early state presidential primary polls, and yet it's hard to find political professionals who see him going the distance.
Why? Look no further than Florida, where die-hard Cain fans can't find campaign staffers to contact, where prominent Republicans can't get calls to the campaign returned and where some people describe themselves as the campaign's Florida leaders while others say the same people are well-meaning but overzealous volunteers.
"I see absolutely nothing from them in Florida," said Gainesville-based Republican consultant Alex Patton, recounting two prominent Republican activist friends who struggled to get campaign calls returned. "It's very hard for me to get behind that guy because I don't take him seriously. I don't care what the polls show and what the focus groups show. It's got to translate into fundraising, and it's got to translate into structure, and I don't see either."
Cain allies say some top-tier political professionals are poised to join the skeletal Cain operation in Florida within days. By some accounts that can't happen soon enough if the former Godfather's Pizza chief executive is to capitalize on his momentum with only 10 weeks before absentee voting starts in Florida.
"It's not happening as fast as I'd like to see it, but with how quickly this (surge) happened, I think they're doing the best they can,'' said state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, one of a half a dozen state legislators backing Cain. "Given the choice of having a campaign apparatus and a candidate that doesn't have the support or does not inspire the base, or having a candidate without a campaign apparatus and who has the support and inspires the base, I'll take the latter."
Florida Republicans launched Cain, 65, from third-tier contender to leading contender when they overwhelmingly elected him their favored candidate in the Presidency 5 straw poll mock election less than five weeks ago. The upset win vaulted Cain from the single digits to neck and neck with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The average of national polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com shows Romney with 25 percent support, Cain with 24 percent, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in a distant third at 13 percent. Florida polls tell the same story.
An InsiderAdvantage poll this week found Cain in one month had risen from 6 percent support among Florida Republicans to 30 percent, just behind Romney. An NBC/Marist poll released Wednesday showed Cain with 32 percent support among likely GOP voters in Florida, Romney with 31 percent and everyone else in single digits.
Cain's personal charm, his successful business career outside of politics and his audacious "9-9-9" plan to overhaul the tax system have fueled his sudden rise in popularity, but personal appeal only goes so far in a presidential campaign. Winning crucial early contests like Iowa and New Hampshire requires strong organization to mobilize voters and, especially in a massive state like Florida, money is critical.
Through September, Cain had $1.3 million on hand, compared to $14.6 million for Romney and $15 million for Perry.
Republican consultant Sarah Rumpf of Orlando, who has been helping Cain in Florida as a volunteer, said Cain is not playing by the traditional campaign model of hiring legions of consultants and hitting every coffee shop in Iowa and New Hampshire. Social networking and his overall outsider appeal helps make up for what Cain lacks in campaign staff.
"People are searching out the information on their own, and there are a lot of volunteers who have self-organized,'' she said, likening Cain's rise to that of the tea party movement. "I am seeing a lot of the same people and messaging happen organically with Herman Cain."
Still, Cain has been on the defensive lately — facing questions about his anemic campaign operation and for recently embarking on a book tour in non-early voting states like Tennessee and Texas.
And it's clear that the campaign was not prepared to handle the surge in interest and enthusiasm in Cain and is now fast trying to catch up.
In Florida, a group of Cain supporters under the banner of Florida4Cain recently sent party leaders and reporters a list of Cain's top Florida campaign directors, for instance, though other Cain supporters insist the group has no formal leadership role.
"I can't talk to you,'' Florida4Cain state director Lou "Typhoon Lou" Marin, said Wednesday before hanging up on a reporter.
Cain campaign spokesman J.D. Gordon, explaining that he can't keep up with the flood of media calls and e-mails, identified one paid staffer in Florida — Suzanne Moore of Tampa Bay.
"We intend to be in Florida a lot," said Gordon, referring a reporter to Moore for more information about the Florida effort. She declined to comment.
Adam Smith can be reached at email@example.com.