Herman Cain speaks to delegates during the Republican Party of Florida… (Phelan Ebenhack / Reuters )
Reporting from Orlando, Fla. -- In a startling embarrassment for the Republican presidential front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was tripped up by businessman Herman Cain in a straw ballot of Florida Republican activists Saturday that Perry himself had touted as an important measure of the field.
The vote has no bearing on the choice of a 2012 nominee but, along with recent campaign events, is likely to increase the chances that the Republican presidential contest will tighten. It comes on the heels of a performance by Perry in a Florida debate Thursday night that disappointed conservatives, including delegates who came to Orlando expecting to back the Texas governor.
Cain received 37% of the vote. Perry, who made by far the most extensive effort, was a distant second with 15%. He barely edged out Mitt Romney, who did not compete here, at 14%. He was followed by Rick Santorum, 11%; Ron Paul, 10%; Newt Gingrich, 8% and Jon Huntsman, 2%.
Michele Bachmann, who scored a high-profile straw vote victory in Iowa last month, finished last, with less than 2%. The Minnesota congresswoman, like Romney, chose not to compete in the Florida ballot.
As it became increasingly clear that Perry was faltering, a prominent Perry supporter, state Rep. Matt Gaetz, claimed in a Twitter post that Romney’s campaign had been encouraging its backers to vote for Cain. A competing rumor, hours earlier, had the Romney camp secretly supporting Ron Paul.
But interviews with delegates indicated that a far more likely reason for Perry’s defeat: a subpar performance in a Florida debate two days earlier—in which he fumbled answers and alienated social conservatives by calling critics of his immigration record “heartless.”
Cain, as he has done at similar activist events around the country, swept the crowd away with an impassioned speech urging the 3,000 delegates to “send Washington a message” that the nation is “ready for a problem solver, not another politician.” The Atlanta businessman was one of only three candidates to appear in person; Gingrich and Santorum were the others.
Cain’s message struck a chord with delegates like Jeff Lukens, 54, who came to the Orange County Convention Center expecting to vote for Perry but said the Texas governor gave "a disappointing performance in the debate."
The Republican activist said he had recognized that debating "is probably not [Perry's] forte" but still was surprised by the governor's performance Thursday night. Lukens, who also attended the GOP debate in his hometown of Tampa last week, said he gave Perry "a pass" on the immigration issue, because he's a border-state governor. But he found the Texan’s answer on a question about Pakistan to be "incoherent."
Going into the nonbinding popularity contest, Perry invested far more money and manpower than his GOP presidential rivals.
At a lavish buffet breakfast Saturday, provided free by his campaign to convention delegates, Perry said his rivals were making “a big mistake” to skip the event.
“Ronald Reagan understood how important it was in ’79, and that’s the reason I’m here today,” said the Texas governor, who left town after mingling with hundreds of breakfast guests for about an hour. The delegates who ate Perry’s scrambled eggs, bacon and ho gave his eight-minute breakfast speech a rather perfunctory reception.
Perry’s defeat was also a significant blow to the Florida Republican Party. State GOP officials had heavily promoted what they described as their straw ballot’s predictive power.
“As Florida goes, so goes the nation, and as you go, so goes Florida,” Republican Gov. Rick Scott told the delegates, after pointing out that that the winners of earlier editions—Reagan in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1987 and Bob Dole in 1995—went on to become the GOP nominee the next year.
Cain, who invested more time than money into the Florida convention, spent three days in and around Orlando, parked his campaign bus outside the convention center and played host to hundreds of delegates at a hotel reception the night before the vote.
However, his lightly funded campaign has virtually no infrastructure, little organization and remains far behind the leaders in the polls. Even those who voted for him Saturday said they don’t expect him to win the Florida primary this winter.
Lukens said he treated the straw ballot like a pre-season football game, rather than an actual primary vote. "I know Cain isn't going to be nominated," he said. "This was an opportunity to vote how you really feel."