Herman Cain captures the heart of many conservatives

Herman Cain speaks at the Iowa Faith Freedom Coalition's Presidential Forum at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, 22 October 2011 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Herman Cain has been surging ahead in polls

I'm on a hillside on a farm in North Carolina, not far from Charlotte, listening to a discussion about who should be vice-president. One man favours Michele Bachmann. Another thinks Newt Gingrich would make a better choice.

Are these Tea Party activists getting ahead of themselves a little? After all, the Republicans are months away from choosing a candidate. But these friends have already decided that issue - it has to be Herman Cain.

The pizza billionaire has surprised many by surging ahead in the Republican polls despite not being taken seriously by many in the media and the party establishment.

I am here in this southern state, watching Chuck Costner and his dog, Skunk, herd sheep.

We're filming for a general piece about the coming election. It's what he says when we are chatting after our interview that I find intriguing.

He's a farmer with some very forthright conservative views, and he has no doubt Cain should win the nomination.

He and his friends dislike mainstream hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, think all the others have some good points, but argue Cain is the one.

'Racism perception'

Chuck likes the man's life story, coming from a poor background and working hard to make his money.

He likes the straight-shooting way he talks. He likes his tough policies on immigration and regulation, as well as the general appeal of his low tax, less government message.

But what, I ask him, about the 9-9-9 tax plan, widely mocked by commentators. Surely no conservative will go for a brand new federal tax (a 9% sales tax)? He agrees, saying that has to change, but regards it as a detail. It's the man himself that matters.

Then I tackle more delicate issues. Would the fact that Cain is black bother any right-wingers?

Chuck diverts into a story. He has a very strong southern accent and says that there are many types of stereotypes.

"I was called 'country' as a nickname at school and I didn't know why, I thought it was because I worked on a farm, until a friend recorded me and played back my voice. I didn't realise I had an accent."

He says he may sound like a southern stereotype but he was brought up to treat all people as equals. All sort of stereotypes are wrong. Cain's race is simply not an issue.

I persist. OK, it isn't with him, but would it be with any voters? The question may be bad form to some, but it has to be asked. The fact is that many commentators and Democrat politicians perceive racism in the Tea Party's opposition to Obama. I can't say I agree.

I've been to many Tea Party rallies and whilst the hostility is strong, I have never detected overt racism, although I guess people wouldn't come out and say it. The people I know well who are Tea Party supporters are not racists. But the accusation is made.

Chuck say he doesn't think it would be an issue. His friends agree. One says: "Obama wouldn't be able to play the race card against Cain."

One conversation on a hillside means little, and opinion polls at this early stage are suspect.

Nevertheless, I wonder. Washington has written off Herman Cain as a lightweight whose day is done.

But I am hearing more and more Tea Party people, conservatives, who think he is the answer to their prayers.