GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, once the longest of long shots, is surging in polls across the country and now leads the field among N.C. Republicans.
Cain's gains have come at the expense of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has fallen as much as the Atlanta businessman has climbed.
Combined with the unsuccessful courtship of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the polls suggest a GOP electorate still looking for a 2012 flag-bearer.
"Part of what these numbers demonstrate is the volatility within the Republican electorate," said Adolphus Belk, a political scientist at Rock Hill's Winthrop University. "Republicans ... haven't fallen in love with anyone yet."
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As if to underscore that, Christie on Tuesday formally spurned the advances of establishment Republicans looking for another candidate.
"Now is not my time," he told reporters in Trenton. "For me the answer was never anything but no. My job here in New Jersey was always my passion."
Christie's decision appears to freeze the Republican field, at least for now, in an election season suddenly becoming squeezed.
Monday's decision by S.C. Republicans to move up their primary five weeks to Jan. 21 will push contests in Iowa and New Hampshire even earlier, to just after the holidays. All that gives any new candidate less time to raise the money and build the organization needed for success in the early states.
That leaves many Republican voters still searching.
A survey released Tuesday by Raleigh's Public Policy Polling shows Cain leading his rivals in North Carolina, Nebraska and West Virginia.
In North Carolina, the Atlanta businessman has the support of 27 percent of Republican voters. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were next at 17 percent.
Perry, who led last month with 35 percent, had the support of 15 percent of GOP voters.
The margin of error is 4.9 percentage points for the North Carolina and Nebraska results, and 5.7 percentage points for the West Virginia survey.
The N.C. poll wasn't the only good news for Cain. A national poll by the Washington Post and ABC News this week showed that Romney leads announced GOP candidates with 25 percent, with Perry and Cain tied for second with 16 percent. That represents a 12-point rise for Cain and a 13-point drop for Perry since last month.
And another poll shows Cain narrowly trailing Romney among Florida Republicans, with Perry in fourth place behind Gingrich.
The polls were done after Cain's surprise victory Sept. 24 in Florida Republicans' presidential straw poll. And they followed debate performances and controversies that soured many conservative Republicans on Perry.
"It's not so much what Cain did but what Perry did," said Tom Jensen, director of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling. "Conservative voters are really souring on Perry and looking for somebody else to support."
Many Republicans, for example, dislike the fact that Perry signed a bill giving many illegal immigrants in-state tuition at Texas colleges.
"Not only has he endorsed that, but he's been bragging about it," said Bucky Sutton, a retired Rock Hill voter who has been to see Perry and Cain.
Cain, the former chairman and CEO of Godfather's Pizza, appears to be picking up much of that support.
He's popular with tea partyers and social conservatives. He prides himself on not being a politician or being politically correct. He's pushing a "9-9-9" plan to enact a 9 percent flat tax on business, a 9 percent tax on personal income and a 9 percent national sales tax.
"First, he's talking about a flat tax," said Belk, of Winthrop. "Then I think that his background as a minister helps him with social conservatives within the party. He speaks their language. And he makes a point of telling them he shares their socially conservative values."
In an opinion piece Tuesday on Fox News, Cain acknowledged his rising visibility.
"Even though the Cain Train is picking up steam ... many in the mainstream media still haven't given me a shot," he wrote. "Fortunately, more have started to take note."
The Associated Press contributed.
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