Just be patient and you, too, can lead the polls for the Republican presidential nomination. Witness the ascent of Herman Cain.

Don’t laugh. “There’s a difference between the flavor of the week and Haagen-Dazs Black Walnut, because it tastes good all the time,” Cain told reporters this week. “Call me Haagen-Dazs Black Walnut.”

All right, go ahead and laugh. Cain will surely respond with what has become his all-purpose retort: “As my grandfather would say, I does not care.”

At the moment, though, we don’t have the option of not caring. According to a stunning new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Cain now tops the GOP field with support from 27 percent of Republican primary voters, compared to 23 percent for Mitt Romney and just 16 percent for Rick Perry.

This is Herman Cain we’re talking about. The former pizza executive who has never held public office — and who considers that fact one of his prime qualifications for the highest office in the land. The African-American Republican who proudly says he “left the Democrat plantation a long time ago.” The major-party presidential candidate who developed his revolutionary — and nonsensical — tax reform plan by ignoring all those smarty-pants economists and seeking the advice of a Cleveland accountant.

Such is the state of affairs in the Republican Party these days. With apologies to Mr. Black Walnut, he does seem to be the flavor of the week. There was a time when GOP voters thought Donald Trump might make a dandy opponent for President Obama. Then the focus shifted to Michele Bachmann, who won the Iowa straw poll and saw her national numbers soar. Then Perry entered the race and reigned briefly as front-runner before sabotaging his candidacy by showing up at a debate.

You knew things were getting weird when a non-candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, dominated the race for weeks. Now, with Cain’s emergence as a top-tier contender, things have gotten even weirder.

Cain’s contribution to American political discourse thus far is a novel debating technique: When confronted with inconvenient facts, say they’re wrong.

I’ve experienced the Cain Maneuver first-hand. During an on-camera interview several weeks ago, he told me that he doesn’t support privatization of Social Security accounts, but instead favors “the Chilean model.” As it happens, I once covered Chile as a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. I know that the Chilean pension system, for better or worse, is studied in universities and think tanks as a model of privatization.

I pointed this out to the candidate. He told me I was wrong. He said what Chile had done was “personalization,” not “privatization.” There was, he maintained, a clear difference. He did not attempt to explain what this difference might be.

Cain uses this clever up-is-down approach to counter criticism of his signature “9-9-9” plan for tax reform. Cain wants to scrap almost all of the federal tax code and replace it with a 9 percent income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax and a 9 percent federal sales tax. Cain says he was helped in developing the proposal by Rich Lowrie, a financial adviser in Ohio whose degree is in accounting, not economics.

As Cain’s opponents pointed out in the last debate, the 9-9-9 plan is ridiculous. Most economists who have looked at the proposal say it couldn’t produce nearly enough revenue for the federal government to function. Moreover, it obviously puts a greater burden on the middle class while cutting taxes for the wealthy.

Cain dismisses these objections by saying that they are “incorrect.” That’s it — “incorrect.” Case closed.

In Cain’s world, things are that simple. In the real world of GOP politics, not so much.

The Cain boomlet owes to two factors. One is that while his economic ideas may be crazy, they are specific and bold. The other candidates mostly confine themselves to saying their policies will be different from Obama’s — without specifying how they might be different from, say, those of George W. Bush. Cain gets points for effort and likability.

The other factor is that the conservative wing of the party really doesn’t like Romney. He may be the eventual nominee but for now, the search for an alternative will continue. When Cain’s rocket fizzles — and quite likely it will — perhaps the well-financed Perry will make a comeback as the anti-Romney, assuming he finds a way to survive those danged debates.

So enjoy the flavor of the week while you can. Ice cream does melt.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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