From the bottom of the polls to the top of the pack, businessman Herman Cain won the Republican Party of Florida’s nationally watched presidential straw poll Saturday in a sign that frontrunner Rick Perry is in deep trouble.
Cain’s victory with 37 percent of the vote was a major defeat for Perry, the frontrunner in Florida and national polls, who garnered only 15 percent after wooing the nearly 3,000 party faithful with a free breakfast and mailers.
The vote also showed how soft Republican support is for Mitt Romney, who came in third with 14 percent. Unlike Perry, though, he avoided schmoozing the GOP voters, called delegates.
"Folks, this is what you call momentum," Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, said in a video message from his campaign bus. "The Herman Cain train is picking up steam."
That means more national media attention, heightened standing in the race and access to more fundraisers.
The straw poll is a mock election and doesn’t necessarily reflect the sentiment of the voters at large. In past years, it has predicted the party’s national nominee, but that streak could be in jeopardy because even some Cain voters had doubts about whether he was ready to be the party’s nominee.
Still, the vote is a major indication of how badly damaged Perry was by a poor debate performance Thursday where he fumbled answers and failed to give specifics.
Many straw poll voters were especially dissatisfied by the answers Perry did give over his moderate immigration position, the “Ponzi scheme” of Social Security and his plan to inoculate girls from human papillomavirus.
“I came in thinking Rick Perry,” said Tommy Langford,a Gilchrist County commissioner who voted for Cain. “I didn’t like the debate at all. I really thought Perry lost it. Mitt Romney called him on immigration. He said we have to take care of them. Not if they’re illegal, we don’t.”
Another big loser: Michele Bachmann, who came in last place. Once a top-tier candidate who won the Iowa straw poll, she has fallen from sight in the debates where she, too, fails to give specifics, excite delegates here or even reach out to them.
Perry issued a written statement congratulating Cain, saying the vote underscored the fact that 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,” Perry said, “not someone who takes multiple sides of an issue and changes views every election season. Today’s vote demonstrates that Floridians are energized and ready to help get America working again.”
Pinellas County delegate Rachelle Warmouth said that, if Perry lost, it wouldn’t be the end of his campaign. But when or lose, the debate performance and the effect it’s having on party loyalists are a call to step up his game.
“He’ll have to have a strong recovery,” she said. “He needs to focus on his message.”
Warmouth’s friend, Eileen Blackmer, agreed: “He needs to work on the three C’s: Be clear, be concise, be complete.”
Lee County delegate Dane Eagle said he’s for Romney. He likes the candidate’s message and polish on stage. And he fears that President Obama would walk all over Perry in debates.
“That’s what Obama does,” Eagle said. “He debates.”
St. Johns County delegate Randy Covington said he arrived in Orlando ready to vote for Perry, but the debate "shattered" that plan. Covington decided to support Cain after the businessman"s rousing speech on Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference wedged in between the party’s Presidency 5 Thursday debate and Saturday straw poll.
But Convington said he wasn’t sure if Cain would or should be the nominee. He said the primary shouldn’t be a two-man race.
"We need this process to go on," Covington said.
Gov. Rick Scott, who announced the results from the Orange County Convention Center stage, said the candidates “need to take very seriously whatever the results are.”
"It shows you something. Florida is important," Scott said from the Orange County Convention Center stage. "It pays to be here."