The Republican race to pick a nominee who will challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 election is, to put it mildly, a work in progress. Several prominent Republicans have gained the spotlight at different times in recent months.
• Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been consistently at or near the top of the GOP heap. He is regarded as fairly fiscally conservative, and he has given generally strong performances in the Republican debates thus far.
• Texas Gov. Rick Perry leaped to the fore of the Republican candidates when he entered the race, apparently because he energized GOP voters who are not certain that Romney is solidly conservative on some issues. But Perry has faded in the polls, and his debate appearances have not given voters confidence that he can articulate his views well enough. Some also have concerns that Perry would be soft on illegal immigration.
• U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota gained attention when she won the Iowa straw poll, and she is solidly conservative. But she has not satisfied some Americans that she has the leadership qualities that are vitally important for anyone who would be our nation's commander in chief. As a result, she has struggled to break out of single digits in opinion surveys.
• Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich of Georgia have made some good points in the debates, but for a variety of reasons, they and the next tier of GOP candidates just haven't sparked a lot of interest among potential voters.
That brings us to another candidate who seems -- at least for now -- to be gaining popularity with the American people: Georgia businessman Herman Cain.
Cain is plainspoken and at times even folksy in the presidential debates, and he holds reliably conservative positions on most issues.
Though it took awhile for his campaign to take off, he has risen in recent days to become a serious challenger.
In a Rasmussen Reports poll pitting Cain head to head against President Obama, Cain was within 3 percentage points of the president among likely voters. He has also gained fast on the presumed GOP front-runner, Romney, in opinion surveys -- tying Romney in a recent CBS News poll and actually pulling ahead of him in a later Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll.
Meanwhile, nearly three-fifths of Republican voters surveyed said they like Cain's "9-9-9" tax plan. The plan would largely do away with the absurdly complicated federal tax code and replace it with a 9 percent personal income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax and a 9 percent national sales tax. It would close a great many loopholes and make the tax code vastly more transparent.
One legitimate concern about Cain's 9-9-9 plan is that the national sales tax it would create would open a new revenue stream for the federal government. It's highly debatable whether that 9 percent sales tax would "stay" at 9 percent.
The GOP field is still clearly in flux. But that likely won't last long. Some candidates soon will pull out, and a clear front-runner will probably emerge.