ORLANDO — From the bottom of the polls to the top of the pack, businessman Herman Cain won a surprise victory at the Republican Party of Florida's nationally watched presidential straw poll Saturday in a sign that front-runner Rick Perry is in deep trouble.
Cain's landslide victory, with 37 percent of the vote, exceeded the combined total for Perry and Mitt Romney, who only garnered 15 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
But it was a particularly stinging defeat for Perry, the front-runner in Florida and national polls. He had wooed the nearly 3,000 party faithful with fliers before the Presidency 5 weekend and a free breakfast Saturday.
"Folks, this is what you call momentum," Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, said in a video message from his campaign bus. "The Herman Cain train is picking up steam."
The vote also showed how soft Republican support is for Romney. Unlike Perry, though, he avoided schmoozing the voters.
The straw poll is a mock election and doesn't necessarily reflect the sentiment of the voters at large. In past years, it has predicted the party's national nominee, but that streak could be in jeopardy because even some Cain voters doubted that he could ultimately win. Still, the vote is a major indication of how badly damaged Perry was by a poor debate performance Thursday when he fumbled answers and failed to give specifics.
Many straw poll voters were especially dissatisfied by the answers Perry gave over his moderate immigration position and his plan to inoculate girls from human papillomavirus — issues that have haunted him since his first debate weeks ago.
"I came in thinking Rick Perry," said Tommy Langford, a Gilchrist County commissioner who voted for Cain. "I didn't like the debate at all. I really thought Perry lost it."
Cain's momentum was evident throughout the weekend. At a faith rally before the debate and a conservative forum after, Cain earned the loudest applause. By Friday night, he was so popular that his staff had to find a bigger room to accommodate admirers. But even then, in a room with a capacity of 700, a long line snaked out the door.
Cain's centerpiece: his plan to scrap the tax code and replace it with a flat 9 percent tax on income, national sales and business profits. Saturday morning, in a speech before the vote, the crowd chanted "9-9-9!" and had an electric response to almost everything he said.
"Let's send a message to Washington," he shouted. "We the people are still in charge of this country!"
It resonated in a convention where vendors sold "Don't Tread on Me" ties and some activists dressed as revolutionary soldiers with tricorner hats. After the vote, people streamed out of the convention hall roaring: "No more RINOS! No more RINOS!" — an acronym for Republicans in Name Only.
The vote and spectacle underscored that Cain, who polled in single digits last week, is the new tea party darling. And Michele Bachmann isn't. She was the big loser of the straw poll, coming in last. Once a top-tier candidate who won the Iowa straw poll, Bachmann had trouble breaking through in recent debates, failed to give specifics and didn't reach out to the Presidency 5 grass roots voters.
Perry issued a written statement congratulating Cain, saying the vote underscored the fact that the conservative message of job creation, fiscal responsibility and limited government is gaining momentum.
"Floridians and voters nationally want a candidate who is clear on the issues and talks honestly about the future," Perry said. "Today's vote demonstrates that Floridians are energized and ready to help get America working again."
Moments later, Perry's supporters tried to spin the results as a "devastating" defeat for Romney because he couldn't overtake Perry.
But other delegates said they're both losers.
"This seriously undermines the electability of Perry and Romney," said Ralph Camp, 64, of Marianna, who voted for Cain.
Ana Navarro, of Miami-Dade and an adviser to candidate Jon Huntsman, said Perry is more show than substance.
"Rick Perry is a Texas stud, a real macho man who looks great in a cowboy hat and boots and was supposed to come galloping on his stallion to rescue Republicans and lead us to the promise land," Navarro said. "But it's become increasingly clear he can't perform. He has electile dysfunction."
Pinellas County delegate Rachelle Warmouth said Perry's loss wouldn't end his campaign. But the debate performance and the effect it's having on party loyalists are a call to step up his game.
"He'll have to have a strong recovery," she said. "He needs to focus on his message."
Warmouth attended the Saturday breakfast hosted by Perry. She said he worked the room hard by shaking hands, posing for pictures and making small talk. He also took a shot at Romney for not wooing the delegates.
"There are a number of folks in some campaigns who have spurned this tradition of the Florida straw poll," he said. "And I think that's a big mistake."
Still, Perry left to attend a Michigan straw poll without addressing the full Florida convention immediately before the vote. Standing in for him: former Texas Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, who attempted to do what Perry failed to do in repeated appearances: address the issue of the so-called Texas Dream Act that helped the children of some illegal immigrants go to college. "He has opposed amnesty. He fought against sanctuary cities," Williams said.
An official primary vote in Florida is months away, in February. That means there's plenty of time for Perry to repair his image, Romney to overtake him or Cain to grow stronger. Cain's win should mean more media attention, a boost in the polls and access to more campaign cash.
Lee County delegate Dane Eagle said he's for Romney. He likes the candidate's message and polish on stage. And he fears that President Barack Obama would walk all over Perry in debates.
"That's what Obama does," Eagle said. "He debates."
St. Johns County delegate Randy Covington said he arrived in Orlando ready to vote for Perry, but the debate "shattered" that plan.
Covington decided to support Cain after the businessman's rousing speech Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference. It was wedged in between the party's Presidency 5 Thursday debate and Saturday straw poll.
But Covington said he wasn't sure if Cain would or should be the Republican nominee. He said the primary shouldn't be a two-man race.
"We need this process to go on," Covington said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who announced the straw poll results from the Orange County Convention Center stage, said the candidates "need to take very seriously whatever the results are."
"It shows you something," said Scott. "It pays to be here."