The question that everyone is asking about Herman Cain right now is very simple: Is his surge in the presidential race for real?

Mr. Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, does not follow any of the traditional rules of presidential politics. He has no political experience. His campaign has raised almost no money and as a result has virtually no staff or infrastructure. There is no likelihood of a big television campaign since there is no money to pay for one. And Mr. Cain appears to make few of the tactical calculations that drive most presidential campaigns.

Next week, he is campaigning in Tennessee — where Republican primary voters are not due to vote until well into 2012.

And yet, Mr. Cain has been surging in the polls — not just among the conservative faithful who attend political conferences, but also among regular Republican voters who get called by pollsters.

Polls can be fleeting things and they capture only a moment in time, as the once-high ratings of Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have shown. But the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Mr. Cain atop the field, effectively tied with the veteran front-runner, Mitt Romney, and ahead of the newcomer, Mr. Perry.