Editor's note: Roland S. Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of "The First: President Barack Obama's Road to the White House." He is a commentator for TV One cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, "Washington Watch with Roland Martin."
(CNN) -- Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain has vaulted to the top of the Republican presidential field because GOP voters like his plainspoken talk and his willingness to offer a radical change to the U.S. tax code, and in a year when touting a long career in politics isn't a good idea, he's getting points for having no political experience.
But just as it is easy to vault up the ladder, it is just as easy to come falling back down when people really begin to start taking everything you say seriously, which should always be the case when running for president of the United States.
It was clear at CNN's Republican debate Tuesday in Las Vegas that the other six candidates on stage weren't going to let Cain skate through another debate touting his "9-9-9" tax plan and smiling and joking. The knives came out quickly, and the former conservative radio show host must have felt like he was ambushed.
Yet it was a question posed two hours earlier by CNN's Wolf Blitzer that brought Cain and his supporters back down to reality.
Using the exchange of 1,000-plus Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli soldier by the Israeli government, Blitzer asked Cain if he would release al Qaeda operatives in Guantanamo Bay for a U.S. soldier.
"I could see myself authorizing that kind of transfer, but what I would do is I would make sure that I got all of the information, I got all of the input, considered all of the options and then, the president has to make a judgment call," Cain said.
When questioned on that, Cain quickly backtracked, saying "things are moving so fast" and that he misspoke.
Well, Mr. Cain, as we saw this week with the killing of former Libya dictator Moammar Gadhafi, President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, and the U.S. Senate rejecting a portion of the president's jobs bill, things move pretty quickly in the White House, and the American people expect the leader of the free world to be able to handle it all.
A few days before the debate, Cain caused an uproar by saying he would build an electric fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants. When pressed about it, he demurred, saying, "That's a joke," and that Americans need to get a sense of humor.
Sorry, Herman, when a presidential candidate touches on the hot-button issue of immigration, you can expect the media and the American people to take you seriously.
But far more damaging to Cain this week was an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan, where he gave the impression that he was pro-choice, while saying he is pro-life.
The confusing answer, as well as the anger with which social conservative Republicans responded, caused Cain to have to walk back the statement by reiterating that he is pro-life.
Are all of these problems manageable? Sure. Every candidate goes through these. But Cain is no ordinary candidate. He's a political novice who is trying to get the American people to trust that his business background is far more important as a qualification for president.
There is no doubt that the 2012 presidential election will hinge on the economy and who voters think can best turn it around, but Cain needs to quickly realize that the person occupying the Oval Office has to be able to deal with domestic and foreign issues. And in every debate, he has faltered or looked like an amateur when discussing what is happening around the globe.
There is no greater trait required of a person running for president than discipline. Cain's performance on that score seems like a hindrance more than it is an asset.
Cain is sitting in a very good position today by virtue of the polls. But unless he is able to clearly articulate his positions without needing to issue clarifying statements, he will be another flash in the pan who will be remembered more for his joking and singing on the campaign trail than a man who was serious about the toughest job in the world.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland S. Martin.