What a difference a few debates can make.
Herman Cain's star has risen steadily in the past two months, from a largely unknown CEO running for president to a top-tier candidate in the Republican field for 2012 -- and now voters even rank him above the presumed front-runner, Mitt Romney, in a poll released Wednesday evening.
As GOP voters grow disenchanted with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and remain wary of Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, Cain, a onetime radio-show host and former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, catapulted into the lead in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.
Drawn by Cain's blunt, folksy style in recent debates, 27 percent of Republican primary voters picked him as their first choice for the nomination, a jump of 22 percentage points from six weeks ago.
Romney held firm in second place at 23 percent, his same share as in a Journal poll in late August, while Perry plummeted to 16 percent, from 38 percent in August.
The poll of 1,000 adults, conducted from Oct. 6-10, comes as many Republican donors and officials have begun to rally around Romney as the party's likely nominee, despite a continued lack of enthusiasm for him documented in the new poll.
On Wednesday, with five of the Republican presidential candidates addressing members of the New Hampshire state legislature in the state capitol, Herman Cain fired up the crowd. His fiery speech drew several standing ovations in defending his "9-9-9 plan," which would replace the tax code with flat 9 percent taxes on businesses, personal incomes and sales across the nation.
The question is whether his newfound prominence will be a lasting phenomenon in a campaign that has seen many others surge and then fade. Since the spring, conservatives have given short-lived bursts of support for a string of contenders, including Donald Trump, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Perry.
"Will I be the flavor of the week?" Cain said Wednesday in New Hampshire. "Well, the answer is an emphatic, 'No,' because Haagen-Dazs black walnut tastes good all the time."
Cain in many ways isn't operating a traditional campaign. He was on tour promoting his new book in recent weeks, and he will make stops between Memphis and Nashville on Friday and Saturday, though Tennessee is unlikely to factor in the Republican nomination. He doesn't plan to return to Iowa, site of the first nominating contest, for weeks, his aides say.
Cain, 65, held a New York fund-raiser Wednesday afternoon and an Ohio finance event Wednesday night. His campaign says it has a paid staff of 30, compared with more than 80 for Romney.
Pressed on how much money he had to ramp up his campaign, Cain would only say "enough," while insisting that money began to flow after his win in a Florida Republican straw poll last month.
Cain raised $2.5 million during the second quarter of the year, and one person close to his campaign said he isn't likely to have raised significantly more than that in the quarter that ended last month.
Newscore contributed to this report.