By Chris Baltimore
LA MARQUE, Texas (Reuters) - With only 10 weeks to go before the first vote of the 2012 elections, Republican presidential contender Herman Cain on Tuesday took the stump in an unlikely place: a dog-racing track south of Houston.
The former Godfather's Pizza CEO has rocketed to the head of Republican polls with a non-traditional campaign centered on his "9-9-9" plan to overhaul the U.S. tax code.
"The thing about rising to the top of the polls is you get shot at a lot," Cain told a Tea Party rally at Gulf Greyhound Park. "But the pain never felt so good."
Cain, a straight-talking Tea Party favorite, has touted a "50-state" strategy to win national attention through public events throughout the country and media appearances.
His top contenders have focused on the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida that likely will pick the Republican nominee.
"We have a national strategy," said Cain spokesman J.D. Gordon. "It's not focused on one or two states, but rather it's a national strategy."
Cain's plan risks losing key states and leaving him behind his main rivals Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
"When you're talking about the caucus and primary season you really have to focus on the states as they come up in order," said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
At Tuesday's event, Cain sat at a table and signed copies of his latest book, "This Is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House," a stone's throw from the starting gates.
Before a crowd of about 3,000 people, many wearing cowboy hats, Cain appealed to two bedrock conservative Texan beliefs -- gun ownership and Christian values. "I kind of like my guns and my Bible," Cain said.
Cain's book tour has taken him to Illinois and Tennessee, with stops including Texas, Arizona and Alabama, miles from any early-voting state. His next planned trip to Iowa is November 19, according to the campaign website.
"As an observer of the Iowa caucuses, I would say, boy, I don't think this is going to work," Hagle said. "But he's doing pretty well in the polls."
A new CBS/New York Times poll showed Cain leading the Republican field with 25 percent support, followed by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney at 21 percent and Texas Governor Rick Perry at 6 percent.
Cain spoke on the same day that Perry proposed a broad economic plan for Americans to pay a flat 20 percent income tax rate. Earlier in the day Cain raised eyebrows when his campaign released a curious YouTube video showing his campaign manager smoking a cigarette. Cain did not mention any of his Republican opponents during his speech, heaping criticism instead on President Barack Obama.
Iowa Republicans will hold their caucuses, meetings where party members make their choice for the nominee to oppose Obama's re-election bid next year, on January 3.
"Since he did so well at the pizza parlor, maybe he can do great at the White House," said Joe Snoe, who drove from Cleveland, Texas, to see Cain speak. "He sounds like he's saying what he means."
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Jackie Frank)