Many keen political observers have not taken the ascendancy of Herman Cain seriously, because they know winning the Republican presidential nomination isn’t about national polls, it’s about Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and the other primaries and caucuses.

That all changes with a new poll commissioned by The Des Moines Register showing Cain ahead of Mitt Romney by one point to lead all rivals. With a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points, the survey of likely caucus-goers makes it a tightly contested race between Cain and Romney, with their closest competitor, Ron Paul, a distant 10 points behind.

Add together first and second choices, and you get 42 Cain, 33 Romney and 21 Paul. Cain is reported to be the best-liked of the candidates, but most said they had not made up their minds.

Caucuses are much more involved and potentially awkward than primaries. Rather than heading into a curtained-off booth to cast a secret ballot on their way to work, caucus-goers gather in meeting spaces and advocate for and divide themselves by candidate based on rules that differ by party. The process discourages voting and, as Barack Obama demonstrated in 2008, allows a well organized campaign or one with a particularly passionate following (paging Ron Paul fans) to have an outsize impact.

This doesn’t mean that Cain is set to win the Iowa caucuses or the Republican nomination. It does mean that his campaign is more than a joke or a media creation and, bizarre commercials aside, it needs to be taken seriously.

Update: Just when things were looking up for Mr. Cain, the candidate was forced to deny sexual harassment allegations Sunday. Welcome to the big leagues, Herman.

— Peter Z. Scheer

Wait, before you go…

If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.

Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.

Support Truthdig