ORLANDO — A series of wobbly debates and heightened scrutiny of Rick Perry's record have conservatives second-guessing the Republican front-runner heading into today's high-stakes Florida straw poll.
Diane Tropia came to Presidency 5 unsure whom she liked: Mitt Romney or Perry. Thursday night's debate provided clarity.
"(It) definitely solidified my vision of Romney," said Tropia, 46, of Jacksonville. "He's very presidential."
The reaction Friday, at this sprawling convention of conservatives in a state critical for winning the presidency, underscored growing doubt among conservatives nationally that Perry is the strongest candidate to confront President Barack Obama.
Back-to-back Florida polls, like some national surveys, show Romney is a better general-election candidate. Though he's losing to Perry, Romney beats Obama in theoretical matchups owing to the support of independents, who decide elections in Florida.
Lingering through it all is Perry's halting debate performance and moderate stance on illegal immigration. Republicans abhor the notion that Obama would rhetorically eat their candidate alive on stage.
"I came here ready to vote for Perry," said Ken Parrish, 72, of Gainesville, referring to the straw poll today that will conclude the three-day gathering. "I just felt like Romney came across more forceful than what I thought he was in the past. It changed my mind."
Perry clearly has broad support here — his team is aggressively working the straw poll; this morning he hosts a breakfast for delegates — and debates can be over-interpreted. Romney is also viewed with considerable skepticism by many conservatives.
"It's not who is the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater that we need to elect," a defensive Perry said in a speech Friday. "We need to elect the candidate with the best record and the best vision of this country."
Perry's speech, in contrast to the debate, was forceful, on point and well received. He turned attention to the health care plan Romney championed in Massachusetts that is similar to Obama's health care plan.
The debate, however, was televised nationally on FOX News, and 5,500 activists watched live in the Orange County Convention Center, about 3,500 of them straw poll delegates.
It was Perry's worst debate of the three he has participated in since joining the race and rocketing to the leader's spot. He stumbled. He couldn't quite enunciate the sharp one-liners.
His troubles took place in the second half of the two-hour debate, which has happened previously as well. He was sweating and shifting his weight from one leg to another, leading some neutral observers in the crowd to wonder if he was in pain. Perry had spinal surgery in July.
Liliana Ros, a Miami-Dade County Republican Party state committee member who's neutral in the race, was in the debate hall Thursday night and said she spoke briefly with Perry during a commercial break.
"He grabbed my hand and held on to it. His hand was so cold, like ice. And he was sweating," Ros said. "He didn't seem well, like he was in pain or he was sick or something. I don't know what it was, but something was definitely wrong."
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam also noticed Perry was sweaty and looked physically uneasy. "He looked uncomfortable," Putnam said. "I felt bad for the guy. It did look like he had a bad back, but I don't know."
Putnam, who is not affiliated with a presidential candidate, said the Presidency 5 and Conservative Political Action Conference was abuzz with Perry's performance.
"That's all everyone's talking about," Putnam said.
Perry's low moment came when the debate turned to illegal immigration. He stood up for a program in Texas giving subsidized higher education tuition for some illegal immigrants, drawing boos from the crowd.
Perry avoided the topic Friday, but the damage was evident in the boos that filled the room a couple of hours later when conservative author Ann Coulter brought it up.
Fellow candidate Rick Santorum, who has struggled to gain attention, also referred to Perry and sensed an opening. "That's what this race is about, is finding that right person who can stand up and when times are tough and when the heat is on, deliver," he told a crowd of about 2,000.
During a break, a survey of delegates confirmed the weariness toward Perry.
"I hated him in that debate," said Rayma Murray, 78 of Vero Beach, who also said she's leaning toward Romney now.
Jim and Michele Tedrick, a Fort Lauderdale couple in their 60s, were both leaning toward Perry when they arrived.
"The debate last night just turned me off with that man," Jim Tedrick said. "This back and forth of you-said-that, I-said-this — enough already. Just tell me what you're going to do."
Michele Tedrick said Perry's not tough enough on immigration. "That was disappointing," she said. "Build a fence. Do whatever we need to do."
State Sen. John Thrasher, a leader in Romney's Florida campaign, said he took a lot of calls from people who were on the fence now interested in Romney.
"That debate was a game-changer," Thrasher said.
Rebecca Walker, a Fernandina Beach retiree, said she is sticking with Perry for one reason: jobs. Walker acknowledged that she "wasn't 100 percent happy" with Perry's debate performance but said the record of job creation in Texas was more important.
"Texas is as big as two states put together, some of them," Walker said. "If you can create jobs in a place that big, you must know what you're doing."
"I'm confused," said Leonard Hall, 68, of Panama City. Hall, a retired teacher, left the Panhandle ready to cast a ballot for the Texas governor. But Hall said he's not sure where Perry is on education, while businessman Herman Cain has been "tremendously impressive."
"I was kind of leaning toward Perry," Hall said. "But I don't know."
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.