By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Herman Cain, who became a surprising front-runner in the Republican presidential race without running a traditional campaign, is scrambling to assemble a team with just 10 weeks before the first crucial nominating contests in January.
A former fast food executive who has never held public office, Cain has jumped to the top of polls among Republican candidates vying for the nomination to oppose President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the November 2012 election.
And he has done it with hardly any organization in states that hold early primaries and caucuses to help determine the nominee.
But to do well in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida -- where the nomination race may be decided -- Cain will need organizations like those that his main rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have been assembling for months.
With a condensed voting schedule that means all four states will hold their nominating contests in January, it is particularly important for Cain to assemble his team quickly.
"In the end, you need the votes in the primary states," said Julian Zelizer, an expert on presidential politics at Princeton University in New Jersey.
"You lose the first four major caucuses and primaries, they will be talking about the front-runner, not you," he added.
Iowa holds its caucuses, the first contest of the Republican nomination process, on January 3, when party members attend meetings to pick their candidates.
Cain and Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, lead polls in the state, as they do nationally. But winning in Iowa takes staff to convince voters to attend long meetings on a cold and possibly snowy night during caucuses voting.
"Cain has almost no presence in Iowa. He doesn't really have a ground game here," said a state Tea Party activist who requested anonymity to speak candidly, adding that Cain could suffer in Iowa because his positions are not well known there. "We're not going to get out the vote for him."
Cain now has four paid staff in Iowa, his campaign spokesman J.D. Gordon said, although he is in the process of hiring more, funded by donations of $1 million a week in October.
"I would say that we're getting there. We're hiring people every day. We're expanding because of the new revenue streams that we have," Gordon said.
Earlier this month, Cain's campaign reported he had some 30 staffers nationally. According to published reports, Romney has about 70 paid staffers. Perry's website has announced the hiring of 94 staffers and "leadership team" members.
Winning in Iowa would be particularly important for Cain, whose base of support is among conservative Republicans who play an out-sized role in the caucuses there.
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"Cain's path ... has to start in Iowa," veteran Republican campaign operative Matt Mackowiak said. "He's really made clear that he doesn't want to play by traditional rules and he's not investing in the early states to the extent that he probably should or to the extent that candidates in the past have."
Cain trails Romney by an average of 22 percentage points in the more moderate New Hampshire, which holds its primary on January 10, according to polls averaged by RealClearPolitics.
Gordon said he could not provide details on Cain's staffing in the state, which borders Romney's home state Massachusetts and where Romney has a vacation house.
In South Carolina, the third state voting in the nomination race, Perry has been expected to do well. As governor of Texas, he would be popular in a fellow southern state and because evangelical Christians -- another base of Perry's support -- are expected to play a big part in the January 21 primary.
But Cain is leading in opinion surveys in South Carolina. According to RealClearPolitics, Cain has 31.5 percent support, to 22 percent for Romney and 11 percent for Perry.
"South Carolina is going to be interesting, but the accelerated calendar should hurt those candidates without strong organizations. That should mean Cain, but we'll see," said Republican strategist Doug Heye, former communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Florida's January 31 primary is the grand prize among the early voting states. Home to 18 million people, 4 million of them Republican voters, Florida could decide the nomination, as it did for Senator John McCain four years ago.
Cain's fundraising picked up after he performed well in debates and drew interest with his so-called 9-9-9 plan to overhaul the U.S. tax code. Cain will need his newfound fundraising heft to win in Florida, after trailing far behind Perry and Romney in the money stakes his summer.
Brian Crowley, editor of the Crowley Political Report blog on state politics, said it costs about $1.5 million per week to advertise on television in Florida, plus about another $500,000 or so for staff, mailings and get-out-the-vote efforts.
However, he noted that Cain in September won a Florida straw poll -- a test of strength for candidates -- and is neck-and-neck with Romney in opinion polls. Cain could benefit because Florida Republicans have become strongly conservative, with a strong influence by the Tea Party movement.
"I don't know how they could campaign any harder to the right without taking off their left arms," Crowley said.
"That's who is going to vote January 31. And if there's anything that can counter not having the money it may be that."
(Additional reporting by Eric Johnson in Chicago; Editing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham)