ORLANDO — Businessman Herman Cain won the Florida GOP presidential straw poll in a major surprise Saturday, as Republicans here delivered a rebuke to Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Cain, who delivered what delegates called a stirring speech just before the balloting, won 37 percent of the more than 2,600 votes from Republicans who came here from across the state to participate.
Perry, who had been expected to easily win the straw poll before a performance in a presidential debate Thursday that many Republicans here felt was lackluster, received 15 percent. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who did not officially compete here and essentially ceded the contest to Perry, finished third with 14 percent.
Mark Miner, a Perry spokesman, said the straw poll results simply reflected the fact that “we’ve been in the race for five weeks.”
“My heart was always with Herman [Cain], but I thought Perry was more electable,” said Brian Donnelly, a Republican from Broward County who backed Cain. But, he said, “Perry needs to work on his debating. We don’t need somebody else like [President George W.] Bush, another tongue-tied Texan.”
The results of the straw poll are non-binding, and Cain remains a long shot to win the Republican nomination because of his lack of funding and political organization in key states.
Cain, an African American in a party with few major black figures, benefited because only he, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum stayed in Florida to speak to the delegates right before the vote, while other candidates left the state early. But while Romney had a limited presence here, Perry competed hard.
Before leaving for a party event in Michigan, the Texas governor organized a 7 a.m breakfast Saturday morning for Florida Republican activists. He spent an hour there going table-by-table, meeting and taking pictures before giving a short speech.
But in interviews, the delegates at the straw poll said Perry had for now lost their votes after Thursday’s debate, in which he at times struggled to answer questions, raising doubts about his ability to compete with President Obama in a debate if he is the GOP nominee.
And he annoyed many conservatives in Florida and nationally by saying people who did not back his decision to allow the children of illegal immigrants in Texas to get reduced in-state tuition at the state’s public colleges don’t “have a heart.”
He said, ‘Poor immigrants, they’ve been through enough,’ ” said Margi Helschien, a Republican from Palm Beach County who attended Perry’s speech Saturday morning but also opted for Cain. “What does he mean, is he going to give them free college? I was confused.”
Sid Dinerstein, another Republican here, said “this was supposed to be Gov. Perry’s week. But he had that bad night.”
The straw poll completed three days of campaigning in Florida by the GOP hopefuls, including the debate. Party activists from across the state came to Orlando for the event, dubbed Presidency 5, as it was held for the fifth time.
While Florida voters did not hold a straw poll in 2007, the previous three winners (Ronald Reagan 1979; George H.W. Bush, 1987; and Robert J. Dole, 1995), all went on to the Republican nomination.
The Republicans here who backed Cain acknowledged he is not likely to repeat that history.