Many of the more than 2,600 delegates at the Florida event said their vote for Cain was a way to register their frustration with all the GOP candidates, particularly Perry, who they felt gave a dismal performance at Thursday’s debate.
But in interviews, the party activists, who came from around the state to see the candidates, said they were unlikely to vote in Florida’s primary next year for the underfunded Cain, who they don’t think can win the general election. Backing Cain was effectively a “no confidence” vote for the entire field.
Brian Donnelly, a Republican from Broward County, opted for Cain, but said he seemed “less electable,” than Perry, who he described as a “tongue-tied Texan.” Donnelly said he did not even consider backing the “father of socialized medicine,” criticizing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the health care law adopted in the Bay State four years ago that became a model for the law Obama signed last year.
One narrative of the Republican primary field has been the number of prominent potential candidates, such as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and governors Chris Christie (N.J.) and Mitch Daniels (Ind.), who have opted against entering the race despite the urging of party activists.
But Republicans aren’t making it on easy on potential candidates or the current field. In the spring, the party’s more policy-oriented types were dismissive of the potential candidacies of businessman Donald Trump and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee generated little enthusiasm among the party’s donors in 2008 and was likely to face a similar challenge if he ran again in 2012.
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty quickly withdrew from the race after party activists labeled him as dull and said he performed poorly in debates. And a month after she won the Iowa Straw Poll, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) campaign has lost so much momentum she finished eighth here Saturday, collecting just two percent of the vote. She, too, is viewed by many in the party as unable to win the general election.
The casting about for Christie and others also is a de-facto non-endorsement of Romney by many party activists, who complain of the health-care law and liberal positions he took on abortion when running for office in Massachusetts in the 1990s.
And now Perry has two marks against him: a perceived weakness in debates and positions on immigration that some in the party view as too liberal.
Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster who attended the Florida events over the weekend, said Perry made a major error in the debate by saying those who disagree with his decisions on immigration don’t “have a heart.”
“When Perry lectured GOP voters on immigration, he told them they were wrong and heartless,” Fabrizio said in an e-mail. “It’s okay to disagree with them, but you never blame the voters for their beliefs.”
But Fabrizio said the casting about for various candidates is not that unusual. In 2008, Republicans complained for months about their choices before settling on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“As for wanting Superman or woman, it happens every cycle this way,” he said.
And David Keene, the president of the National Rifle Association who was also in Florida, said the Republicans still had one major advantage: party activists will quickly coalesce around whoever wins the nomination.
“We have the greatest uniter in the history of American politics, Barack Obama,” he said.