The Republican presidential campaign just gets curiouser and curiouser.

Verbal piracy, you say? And bad grammar to boot?

Maybe. But why not steal a phrase from Lewis Carroll’s Alice, whose adventurous wanderings through the rabbit hole exposed her to a mind-twisting array of weird characters and weirder conversations?

Have you checked the latest opinion polls? Have you watched the Republican debates?

Is that Newt Gingrich we’ve been watching, or the White Rabbit? Can anyone say for sure that the candidate who calls herself Michele Bachmann isn’t the Queen of Hearts?

Curiouser, indeed.

It’s all been curious, but perhaps the curiousest — stay with us now, we’re on the dark side of the looking glass — development of the election season has been the stunning rise of Herman Cain to the top of the national polls. Nobody saw that coming.

BACHMANN HAD A TURN

Bachmann’s brief flurry as one of the front-runners was mildly surprising but not mind-boggling. She was a favorite of the tea party wing of the Republican Party, after all, and she commanded vast amounts of media coverage by upstaging Sarah Palin as the GOP’s leading contender on the female side of the aisle.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s stint atop the candidate standings wasn’t too surprising. He had truckloads of money to spend and he jumped into the race with enough media hoopla to make Donald Trump feel neglected.

The curiouser — oops, there we go again — story on the Perry front was what happened next: Texas’ longest-serving governor fared so poorly in debates that he quickly found himself splashing around in the shallow end of the pool with the likes of ex-House Speaker Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

From first place to no place in the blink of a eye. If his presidential campaign continues to crash and burn, maybe Perry can snag a contract to play for the Boston Red Sox.

And then along came Cain. Spouting platitudes about free enterprise and personal initiative and chattering constantly about an economic plan called “9-9-9,” the former pizza executive at first seemed to bring little more to the campaign than the occasional flash of common sense and the periodic splash of comic relief.

But somehow Cain’s message of “I’m not them!” started filtering through to voters who couldn’t warm up to putative front-runner Mitt Romney or convince the not-quite candidates on the sidelines — Palin, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie — to join the fray. Unable to muster enthusiasm for Romney, Perry, et al., folks apparently started thinking, “You know, that 9-9-9 deal makes a lot of sense. I like that Herman Cain.”

Herman Cain is as likable as a candidate can be. But 9-9-9 makes no sense at all. The first two 9s — 9 percent flat taxes on individual and corporate income — might offer a nice launching pad for a discussion about simplifying the federal tax code. But the third 9, the 9 percent national sales tax, is the worst idea since somebody decided to put pineapple on pizza.

Mmm. You don’t suppose that was Cain’s idea, do you?

In Maine, the sales tax is a tolerable 5 percent, but you add 9 percent to it and buying something suddenly becomes a difficult decision. In places where residents are already choking on sky-high state and local sales taxes, Cain’s plan could provoke an economic nightmare for buyers and sellers alike.

Cain is an engaging guy and he’s been a pleasant distraction from the rhetorical gut-punching that has marred recent debates — at least the Romney-Perry portions of the debates. Come to think of it, the last time or two that Romney and Perry were side by side, it almost looked like we might see some actual gut-punching.

ROMNEY’S STRUGGLE

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who was hoping to cruise to the presidential nomination without mussing his hair, now finds himself playing second fiddle to Cain in some polls and fending off harsh attacks from Perry as the scrappy Texan tries to claw his way back into the race.

And if you think this campaign can’t get any curiouser, some pundits have been speculating that the next long shot to mount a surge in the polls could be Gingrich, the irascible idea machine who’s as off-putting as Cain is appealing.

We’ll believe that one when we see it.

Meanwhile, President Obama blithely barnstorms the country, touting his dead-in-the-water jobs plan and daring Republicans to conjure up something better. With the economy in the tank and unemployment rampant, you’d think the incumbent president would have no chance of being re-elected.

But it’s hard to see how the Republicans can beat him unless at least one of them climbs out of the rabbit hole.