UPDATED: 5:40 p.m.
Rick Perry suffered a big blow Saturday when businessman Herman Cain scored a decisive victory in the Florida Straw Poll, a contest the Texas governor had made a big priority.
Cain, a fiery and moving speaker, took more than a third of the vote, or 37 percent. Perry came in second, with 15.4 percent. Mitt Romney, who did not actively participate in the nonbinding contest, placed third at 14 percent. Michele Bachmann, whose campaign has faded since she won the Iowa Straw Poll in August, was dead last with just 1.5 percent of the vote.
Neither Romney nor Bachmann actively participated in the Florida Straw Poll. That left expectations unusually high for Perry, who went all out with glossy brochures, direct appeals to delegates and a free breakfast Saturday morning.
The defeat in Florida comes at a rough time for Perry. His third debate prompted criticism from pundits and rivals alike, who said Perry seemed tired and unprepared. The delegates in Orlando were also upset about the way Perry criticized opponents of in-state tuition for certain illegal immigrants.
Perry congratulated Cain and said it shows the “conservative message of job creation, fiscal responsibility and limited government is gaining momentum.”
“Floridians and voters nationally want a candidate who is clear on the issues and talks honestly about the future, not someone who takes multiple sides of an issue and changes views every election season,” Perry said.
Romney sent out a message on Twitter saying the Florida GOP had an “exciting and impressive week.”
ORLANDO — Gov. Rick Perry is betting big on a non-binding straw poll Saturday in Florida, where conservative activists were rattled by a shaky debate performance and his moderate views on illegal immigration.
Perry told delegates at the GOP “Presidency 5” convention in Orlando that Florida is the state that “picks presidents.” Noting Florida’s decisive role in the 2000 election — and in turn in his own elevation to the Texas governor’s office — Perry said he was counting on a victory in the Florida Straw Poll to give him a boost.
“Here we are 11 years later and I’ve got all my hopes on Florida again,” Perry said. The stakes (and expectations) are high for Perry because he has spent a lot of time and money trying to win the contest, while his top two rivals, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, are not actively competing.
The names of all the major contenders for president are on ballot of the Florida Straw Poll, organized by the state’s Republican Party. GOP officials are hyping the contest as a good indication of who will win the crucial state primary and the nomination: in all three Florida Straw Polls that have been held, in 1980, 1988 and 1996, the winner has gone on to clinch the GOP nomination.
“There are a number of folks and some campaigns who have spurned this tradition of the Florida Straw Poll and I think that’s a big mistake,” Perry said. “I think the Florida Straw Poll is very important.”
While Perry has put a lot of effort into winning over the delegates, many of them were surprised by his shaky debate performance Thursday night, when he sometimes struggled to get his point across. Perry responded by saying that voters don’t want the “smoothest debater” in the White House, but rather a strong leader.
The Republican activists gathered in Florida seemed willing to give him a pass on the unsteady delivery but his stand on in-state tuition for certain illegal immigrants has sparked a serious uproar.
Mary Jo Sciscenti, a delegate from Pinelas County, said she was leaning toward Perry until he suggested that opponents of providing the tuition breaks were heartless.
“I like him. I think he presents very well. His Achilles heel is the immigration issue. I’m having a hard time getting over that,” she said. Still, Sciscenti said Romney was “way too liberal” for her, and so now she’s agonizing over a choice between candidates Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich in the straw poll.
Perry supporter Roy Abshier, chairman of the Marion County Republican Party, said the governor “seemed a little caught off guard” on the immigration issue but predicted that Perry’s “conservative values” would trump any blowback.
“He’ll make a great leader,” Abshier said.