Is Herman Cain in over his head?

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"It doesn't send mixed messages. It just shows that I'm willing to correct myself ... if in fact I need to correct myself for clarity. That's what I'm trying to achieve."

Herman Cain (Photo courtesy John Trainor)

For those in the GOP still in search of a candidate to back, his rocky rollout on the national stage has reinforced the view that Cain - he has never held elected office - is not ready for the big leagues.

"I'm looking for someone that's electable and right now I don't think he fits into that category," said 60-year-old Gene Carkeet of Memphis, Tenn., who attended a recent Cain rally there but remains undecided.

Gwen Ecklund, Republican chairwoman in Crawford County, Iowa, said Cain "has had a bad week."

"I do think it made some people take a second look," she said.

Cain's stumbles come as the campaign of rival Rick Perry shows some early signs of renewed vigor. Perry has plummeted in public opinion polls as Cain has climbed. But the Texas governor turned in a spirited and combative debate performance at a recent forum in New Hampshire and plans to unveil his own tax reform proposal relying on a flat tax under which everyone would pay the same income tax rate.

Cain and Perry are competing for support from tea party groups and evangelical voters.

Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist who founded the national Christian Coalition and now heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said Cain is going through the growing pains that come with sudden national exposure.

"It's a learning curve for any candidate who moves from the back of the pack to front of the pack," Reed said. "You undergo the political equivalent of a GI tract exam ... where every word is weighed and chewed over and scrutinized."

Reed said that after months of jumping on every media appearance offered, Cain and his staff must now limit his exposure and hammer home carefully honed talking points.

That's a tall order for a man who has spent years as a conservative radio talk-show host, saying what was on his mind and scoring points for being provacative.

Whether Cain's willingness to retool his 9-9-9 tax plan will be seen as a strength or a weakness is an open question.

"I guess we'll see what the polls say next week," said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist had been critical of Cain's original proposal.

Not everyone is disheartened by Cain's missteps. Kay Godwin, co-founder of Georgia Conservatives in Action, said she is still solidly behind him.

""Look at Romney and Perry at the last debate. They can't even be civil to each other on a stage in front of a national audience," Godwin said. "At his core, Herman has the heart to save this country."

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