ORLANDO — There's plenty we don't know about this volatile 2012 presidential race, but three days of campaigning in Florida by the Republican contenders and Saturday's stunning Presidency 5 straw poll result clarified quite a bit.
Here are 10 things we learned about the Republican Party and its field of presidential candidates:
1. The idea of Rick Perry is a lot stronger than the reality of Rick Perry.
Republicans eager for a principled, proven conservative as an alternative to Mitt Romney hoped the Texas governor would roar to the front as a forceful contrast to President Barack Obama in the general election. Instead, they saw a halting and unsteady debater who looked over his head. Florida killed his front-runner status.
2. Conservatives are as hungry as ever for a Romney alternative.
No question Herman Cain wowed voters in the Presidency 5 straw poll, but many of his backers have no expectation he will win the GOP nomination. It was a particularly conservative part of the Republican electorate voting Saturday and it sent a thunderous message of rejection to the front-runners. Romney has been campaigning in Florida for at least five years and still finished third.
3. Electability matters. Debates matter.
Even in the tea party era where conservative purism is prized, Republicans are determined to beat Obama. Throughout the Orange County Convention Center, formerly enthusiastic Perry supporters backed away, saying his debate performance left them uneasy about his ability to take on the president. While debates are dominated by talking points and rehearsed one-liners, they've also been drawing big ratings. And in Perry's case, Thursday's debate proved how they can make or break a campaign.
4. Voters demand specifics.
In this economy it's not enough to just attack Obama, offer vague promises or, as Perry did, say he'll eventually deliver an economic plan for the country. One of the things many delegates said they liked about Cain was his relentless focus on his "9-9-9" plan: 9 percent national sales tax, 9 percent flat business tax and 9 percent flat personal income tax.
5. It's too late for another viable candidate.
Despite the chatter about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie jumping into the race, Perry showed how hard it is to mount a serious campaign just four months before the voting starts. Courting major fund-raisers, developing a platform, preparing for debates and actual campaigning are extremely tough to do with so little time.
6. Perry made Romney a better candidate.
Forced by Perry's momentum to abandon his play-it-safe, inevitable nominee approach, Romney, right, is looking less like an automaton and more like a tough fighter.
7. Illegal immigration is toxic among Republican primary voters.
Not so long ago, then-Gov. Jeb Bush supported driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants and then-state Rep. Marco Rubio supported a bill to give tuition assistance to children of illegal immigrants without causing a firestorm. Those days are gone. Romney, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum bludgeoned Perry for supporting in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants in Texas.
8. Michele Bachmann is no longer relevant.
Less than 2 percent of the straw poll voters supported the Minnesota congresswoman, right, who used to be the darling of tea party activists.
9. Republicans are energized.
They may be ambivalent about the top contenders in the race, but the Presidency 5 event left no doubt that the activist base of the party is fired up and passionate about making Obama a one-term president. He is the greatest unifying force Republicans have had in years.
10. Florida matters.
Three times the winner of the state party's straw poll has gone on to win the nomination. Cain will likely break that streak, but Florida demonstrated once again what an unpredictable and important political battleground it is. Cain may still be a long shot for the nomination, but the straw poll inflicted major damage to Perry, who campaigned harder than anyone.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.