ORLANDO -- Businessman Herman Cain scored a major upset Saturday, winning the Florida straw poll and creating a new set of problems for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The final tally: Cain carried 37% of the vote, Perry 15% and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney 14%. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum was at 11%, Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 10% and former House speaker Newt Gingrich at 9%. Trailing far behind were former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, at 2%.
The straw poll in Orlando was non-binding and voting was limited to about 3,500 delegates who had paid $175 each to attend Presidency 5, hosted by the Florida GOP. But Perry's failure to win on the heels of a shaky performance in Thursday's debate will underscore concerns by some of his supporters about whether he can maintain and build on his quick rise in the polls.
Cain was one of just three contenders who showed up to speak at the Saturday convention. He got a particularly enthusiastic reception, disputing the "rumor" that he couldn't win the election and saying it was time to send "a problem-solver" rather than a politician to the White House. "Send Washington a message!" he said, bringing the crowd to its feet.
Listing crises on everything from the economy to moral values, he said he could "hit the target called fix-it."
Santorum noted he had defeated a Democratic senator in Pennsylvania, a swing state, and told the audience: "You folks in Florida have to find somebody who will not only stand up and give a good talk" but also "someone who can win the election, someone who is a consistent conservative. . . and has proven they can win in the places we need to win. That's what we need. That's what we're working for."
Without naming names, he said he had been a consistent conservative who had never run as a Democrat (a reference to Perry) or run as a moderate Republican (a reference to Romney) when that stance was convenient.
Gingrich got cheers from the home-state audience when he suggested as the nominee he would choose Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as his running mate.
He also vowed to challenge Obama to seven Lincoln-Douglas style debates, each three hours long and none with a moderator. ""If he wants to for his purposes use a Teleprompter for the debates, I'd understand that and it's OK," he said to laughter. "If I was going to defend Obamacare for 90 minutes, I'd want to have a Teleprompter."
Perry already had left for Michigan, slated to release its own straw poll on Sunday, but he came by earlier in the day to mingle with delegates and offer them a free eggs-and-bacon breakfast. "You've seen what happens when our country chooses a leader who emphasizes words over deeds," Perry told them in brief remarks. "Americans don't need more slick promises. We need a principled leader who will stand on his conservative values."
His comments could be interpreted as a slap not only at Obama but also at former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. He was focused and crisp at the debate, but he's not officially competing at the straw poll.
Perry was favored in the straw poll, but several delegates said they were uneasy about his debate performance -- he was often on the defensive -- and his answers on the treatment of illegal immigrants. He defended a law he signed that allows in-state tuition at Texas colleges for children regardless of their immigration status.
"I was coming in for Perry, like a lot of people, but now I'm not sure," Charles Prachar, 72, a delegate from Macclenny, Florida, said before the vote. "I didn't like how bad he did at the debate and the immigration thing." He was intrigued by Cain but worries, "I don't think he can win."
The Florida Straw Poll touts its record of accurately signaling the GOP's eventual nominee. In the three times it has been held, Ronald Reagan won in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1987 and Bob Dole in 1995. Each was nominated for president the following year.
After his win was announced, Cain sent a tweet thanking his supporters. "Great day at the straw poll here in Florida," he wrote on Twitter. "10 standing ovations is a clear sign of momentum!"