ORLANDO—This isn’t the first time Rick Perry has counted on Florida to give his political career a critical boost.
For about a month and half in late 2000, his future lay in the state’s hands. The rest of the nation was focused on the drama over the battle for the presidency between George Bush and Al Gore, but Perry was waiting to hear whether he would replace Bush to become the governor of Texas.
“Here we are 11 years later, and I’ve got all my hopes into Florida again,” he told a crowd of about 2,000 Republican delegates who gathered to hear him speak over breakfast here on Saturday morning, just hours before the state GOP conventioneers would cast ballots for their presidential favorites in a party straw poll.
Perry is making an aggressive bid for the state’s party activists, especially as chief rival for the front-runner status, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has declined to campaign in the straw poll.
“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 reassured his audience.
But in the first quantifiable test of success for his still-nascent campaign, Perry has some bigger challenges than he was expecting. His weak debate performance here Thursday night may have raised questions about his ability to beat Obama, a primary concern for many Republicans.
Friday and Saturday, he sought to turn the debate performance into an advantage. “What Americans are looking for isn’t the slickest candidate, they’re looking for an authentic, principled leader,” he told the delegates, a jab at both Romney, who fared well in the debate, and President Obama, who is noted for his rhetorical abilities. “You’ve seen what happens when our country chooses a leader who chooses words over deeds,” he added.
Even if he can convince voters that his lack of debate prowess is an asset, Perry may face a bigger challenge in overcoming opposition by many Republican conservatives to his immigration policies. His impassioned defense during the debate of one of his more controversial moves – accusing those who oppose in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants of not having a heart – may have backfired.
In a speech Friday to Florida’s Conservative Political Action Conference here, Romney offered a zinger of a retort: “I think if you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain,” he said.
Some voters here agree, saying that they like Perry’s conservative stances but are troubled by his history with immigration policy, which Romney likened to giving subsidies to illegal immigrants. But if Perry does win the nomination, it is likely to help him chip away at the 67 percent of Latino voters who supported Obama in 2008.
It remains to be seen whether Perry’s outspoken conservative stances on other issues will be enough to help him overcome the enthusiasm that crowds here have shown for candidates like businessman Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, all of whom are appealing to the same fiscally and socially conservative base as Perry.
Either way, the Texas governor looks like he’s cast a long-term eye on the state that helped deliver him his job for the first time in 2000.
“It’s great to be here in the state that pick presidents,” he told the audience