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Herman Cain supporters: Where do they go now?

A new political race has begun: the Herman Cain primary.

The implosion of the one-time Republican presidential frontrunner leaves his voters — and his political organization — up for grabs.

Right now, national and Florida polls show that Newt Gingrich is benefiting most. He's also trying to pick up some of Cain's campaign team.

But nothing's certain in a race in which there have already been five frontrunners.

"If I had to vote today, I'd vote for Ron Paul," said Francisco Gonzalez, a Tallahassee Republican who was part of the conservative tide that elevated Cain to top-tier status in the Republican Party of Florida's Presidency 5 straw poll in September.

The sense of enthusiasm and inspiration is long gone for Cain supporters such as Gonzalez, who said he feels "disillusionment with the entire electoral process."

Many Cain supporters feel that the news media were unfair to Cain. Many believe that Cain's campaign failed him. Some acknowledge that Cain bears a good measure of blame for the end of his campaign last week amid a string of allegations of sexual misconduct.

Regardless, their candidate is gone. And they're left with a sense that they have to settle on a second choice.

Kathleen Shanahan, a former chief of staff for Jeb Bush and a top Cain supporter in Florida, said she will focus on helping with the Republican National Convention rather than jumping aboard another campaign.

"My excitement is not easily transferable," said Shanahan, lamenting that Cain's top campaign advisers were ill-equipped to launch a major national campaign after Florida Republicans put him in the top tier at Presidency 5.

"Herman Cain represented two things: One, he represented big ideas. And two, he represented the inability of the national campaign to scale their skill set to a national size," she said.

Most insiders think that Mitt Romney will win out because of his money and the strength of his campaign organization. But polls suggest that Republican voters don't want Romney as their nominee, even though he does best against President Barack Obama in a theoretical matchup.

Still, recent polls show that Democrats are less enthusiastic about voting than Republicans are, and the incumbent president is highly vulnerable because of the bad economy.

Patricia Sullivan, a Lake County tea party organizer who was part of Cain's campaign, said the candidate left a legacy that spoke to the power of the grass roots.

"What I'm doing is I'm taking a step back and I'm reassessing what I want from a candidate," she said. "Because what I wanted I can't have. I wanted a champion for the people."

When asked who was definitely off her list, Sullivan listed Romney, Paul, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann. That leaves Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Gingrich.

Gingrich's campaign resembles Cain's in the early days of his frontrunner status: He doesn't appear to have a real campaign. Like Cain, Gingrich pulls double duty on the campaign trail by selling his books. Gingrich has excelled during multiple debates.

Also, like Cain, Gingrich has been associated with extramarital affairs. But Gingrich has acknowledged that on the campaign trail — Cain still denies any wrongdoing — and has tried to fashion his faults as a tale of redemption. Some social conservatives, such as Gonzalez, say Gingrich's infidelity is too tough to forgive politically.

Gingrich is getting anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of the vote in Florida, according to state polls, which also indicate that Cain voters are going to Gingrich in droves.

Washington insiders, though, say it's only a matter of time before Gingrich — who can be sharp-tongued and haughty — falls apart. His frosty relations with some Republicans led Gingrich to resign from the U.S. House when his post as speaker seemed in doubt in 1998.

Like many of Cain's supporters, Republican strategist Adam Goodman said he's in a wait-and-see mode. Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican and the first member of the Florida Legislature to endorse Cain, said he, too, is taking his time.

But time is running out. The Iowa caucuses begin Jan. 3. The Florida primary is Jan. 31.

Blogger and campaign operative Sarah Rumpf had planned to stick with Perry until he fell apart during the Florida Republican straw poll and debate in September. She then went with Cain. Today, she sounds as if she's leaning toward Gingrich.

"I want somebody who gets that there are problems — and is angry about it — but still has an optimistic message," she said. "Michele Bachmann and Santorum sound too negative and crazy all the time. Huntsman doesn't sound like he's really upset about anything."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

Herman Cain supporters: Where do they go now? 12/05/11 [Last modified: Monday, December 5, 2011 9:16pm]
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