ORLANDO – After 43 days as a presidential candidate, Rick Perry’s honeymoon is officially over.
His lame second-place finish Saturday to the charismatic but little-known corporate executive Herman Cain in a straw poll of Florida Republicans, preceded by an equally lame appearance here in Thursday's GOP presidential candidates' debate, exposed the steep learning curve ahead for the brash Texas governor.
After investing more money than any other contender in the poll, Perry’s disappointing showing takes the shine off his frontrunner’s crown and will force him to reassess his message and strategy going forward.
“It’s a real body blow, but it’s not a death blow for Perry,’’ said Jamie Miller, a Republican strategist and straw poll delegate from Sarasota. “He will continue to have the resources to compete.’’
In the short term, Perry needs to regain his footing on the campaign trail by undercutting the conservative credentials of his leading rival, Mitt Romney, while asserting his own socially conservative record and economic successes in Texas. By the time of the next nationally televised debate in two weeks, Perry also needs to be better prepared for questions outside his comfort zone, like on national security.
The Republican activists gathered for a three-day convention in this big battleground state ran into the arms of Cain, giving him 37 percent of the 2,657 ballots cast in the state party’s mock election and a stunning upset, after a Fox News debate that triggered waves of second-guessing in and outside the debate hall about Perry's relatively moderate record on immigration and his preparedness for the national stage.
“The question is whether other folks in Florida and in other states on the Perry bandwagon are willing to overlook the fact that he’s not the best debater, and I think they probably will,’’ said Reed Galen, who worked as John McCain’s deputy campaign manager in 2008 and attended the straw poll. “I think this will be a hiccup and a learning experience for a young campaign. Running for governor of Texas and running for president are two very different things.’’
Perry acknowledged as much when he addressed hundreds of delegates over breakfast Saturday morning.
“What Americans are looking for isn’t the slickest candidate, they’re looking for an authentic, principled leader,” he said. In an obvious jab at President Obama, he added, “You’ve seen what happens when our country chooses a leader who chooses words over deeds.’’
For Perry, the best news from the eventful weekend is that the GOP field remains wide open: Romney declared he was not competing in the straw poll and left the convention Friday afternoon. But for a major candidate who has been stumping in the state for nearly five years and is coming off a string of widely praised debate performances, his third-place finish reflects a persistent hesitancy among Republicans to unite behind him. On Saturday, rumors surfaced again about the possibility of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie making a late entrance into the field, another signal of unease by the party establishment.
Cain, who got more votes than Romney and Perry combined, is expected to ride only a short-term boost of fundraising and notoriety because of his political inexperience and lack of a national campaign organization. Just look how far Michele Bachmann’s star has fallen since her resounding win in last month’s straw poll in Iowa; she came in last in Saturday’s vote.
Unlike the Iowa poll, which Bachmann won last month after hunkering down in the state and spending roughly $1 million to corral supporters to Ames, Florida’s contest did not necessarily reflect a campaign’s organizational strength. Florida’s roughly 3,000 delegates paid their own registration and travel costs.
However, Perry invested in campaign mailings, handouts, and a breakfast for hundreds of delegates held just hours before the voting began.
“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,” he said at the breakfast, raising the stakes. “It’s great to be here in the state that picks presidents.’’
Only Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul stayed to make closing arguments to the straw poll delegates on Saturday afternoon. Texas congressional candidate Michael Williams, viewed as a rising star in the state, gave what amounted to a long apology for Perry’s debate performance. He defended Perry from the charge from that he’s “soft’’ on illegal immigration, pointing to the $400 million the state has spent on border security and his opposition to federal amnesty legislation.
“No illegal immigrant has received a handout for a free college education in the state of Texas,’’ he declared referring to Perry’s support for a 2001 law that allows the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition.
The results of the straw polls in Florida and Iowa, two pivotal primary states, are likely to revive questions about the legitimacies of these contests since neither Bachmann nor Cain are viewed as likely nominees. The polls are shaping up more like fantasy football games, in which participants pick their dream candidates, regardless of their staying power. The votes are better at knocking out candidates – like Tim Pawlenty last month – than in picking winners.
More than any other candidate who attended the three-day convention in Florida, Cain seemed to be enjoying himself. He would walk up to a podium, bask in the applause and just smile. On Saturday, Cain had the crowd chanting his economic plan along with him – “9-9-9!” – which stands for his proposed 9 percent flat tax rate on corporate profits, personal income and retail sales.
“Just because someone has never held higher office, some people are spreading the nasty rumor that Herman Cain can’t win,’’ he said. “When you cast your ballot at the straw poll, send Washington a message that you’re ready for a problem solver, not another politician.’’
Andy Tuck, a delegate from Sebring County, was like many delegates who came to the convention with an open mind. But he said he fell for Cain after watching the debate, meeting him at the convention, and seeing the rise he got out of the crowd on Saturday.
“He seems to be the most gutsy,’’ Tuck said, adding that he liked that Cain has never held public office.
Perry got the vote of Wes Maddox, who served with him in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M University and now lives in Hillsborough County in central Florida.
“There is authenticity to what he says that doesn’t come with other candidates,’’ he said, predicting a “slugfest’’ for the nomination.