- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2011

ORLANDO, Fla. — Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain won the Presidency 5 straw poll here Saturday, delivering a blow to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s front-runner status and a victory for a candidate who has struggled to transform his grass-roots popularity into strong showings in national polls.

“Tonight’s winner is Herman Cain,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced. “It shows you something: The road to the White House comes through Florida, and it pays to spend time here.”

Mr. Cain received 37 percent of the more than 2,600 votes cast.

“Thank you to the Republican voters for this incredible honor of being named the winner of the Presidency 5 straw poll in Florida today,” Mr. Cain said. “This is a sign of our growing momentum and my candidacy that cannot be ignored. I will continue to share my message of ‘common-sense solutions’ across this country and look forward to spending more time in Florida, a critical state for both the nomination and the general election.”

The two national front-runners — Mr. Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — placed second and third. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, landed in fourth place; Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was in fifth place; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, sixth. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann finished last. (See the poll results here.)

Mr. Cain’s victory closed out a three-day Republican powwow at the sprawling Orange County Convention Center, where thousands of activists watched Mr. Perry stumble through another debate, while some of the oft-overlooked candidates turned in perhaps their best performances yet.

Minutes before the vote, Mr. Cain, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich each personally addressed the crowd Saturday afternoon, while some of the other candidates sent surrogates to speak on their behalf.

Mr. Cain again vowed to replace the tax code with a 9 percent tax on businesses, personal income and sales. He also said that while the nation faces economic, global and moral crises, the “biggest crisis of all is a severe deficiency of leadership in Washington, D.C., and in the White House.”

Mr. Santorum followed that up by continuing to cast himself as a proven winner in Democratic-leaning districts and as the authentic article when it comes to embodying the basic tenets of the conservative movement. “I stood by my convictions every single time,” he said.

Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, expressed admiration for Sen. Marco Rubio, a tea party favorite, and teased the crowd with the idea of tapping him as his running mate.

“I’m not saying anything specific about a choice being made next summer, but when you imagine Marco Rubio debating Joe Biden, I mean, the contrast between American common sense and liberal nonsense will be so big,” he said, sparking laughter from the crowd.

The weekend kicked off Thursday with a Faith and Freedom Coalition rally and featured the third debate in as many weeks and a gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, its first ever regional meeting,

The result will win Mr. Cain some headlines, but the long-term impact of the poll on the nomination battle is difficult to read, as Mrs. Bachmann opted against aggressively competing in the poll and Mr. Romney opted out entirely.

“Our campaign has made the decision to not participate in any straw polls, whether it’s in Florida, Iowa, Michigan or someplace else,” said Matt Rhoades, Mr. Romney’s campaign manager. “We respect the straw poll process. In the last presidential campaign we were both strengthened as an organization and learned some important lessons by participating in them. This time we will focus our energies and resources on winning primaries and caucuses. We look forward to bringing Mitt Romney’s strong pro-jobs message to every part of the country.”

(Mrs. Bachmann won the last high-profile straw poll in Iowa last month but failed to get a bounce out of it.)

Mr. Perry, however, invested time and money in the contest. Heading into the event, he unveiled a leadership team for Presidency 5 led by Dean Cannon, speaker of the Florida House.

On Saturday, Mr. Perry hosted a breakfast for more than a thousand delegates and delivered his last pre-poll sales pitch, telling the crowd that Florida was a state that “picks presidents” and that it was a mistake for candidates to skip the “very important” straw poll.

“I think Ronald Reagan understood how important it was in 1979, and that’s the reason I’m here,” he said, suggesting that the former president’s straw poll victory helped propel him into the White House.

George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole also won the poll before winning the party’s presidential nod.

Mr. Perry also urged the delegates to chose substance over style — a message that he has repeated and that’s seen as a swipe at Mr. Romney, who many believe has delivered more polished performances in the debates.

“You’ve seen what happens when our country chooses a leader who emphasizes words over deeds,” Mr. Perry said. “We get a president like we have today.”

He added: “Americans don’t need more slick promises. We need a principled leader who will stand on his conservative values.”

The poll results come as Mr. Perry tries to regroup from a uneven debate performance Friday, where he came under fire from his GOP rivals and some of the audience for suggesting people are heartless if they didn’t support in-state tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants attending public colleges and universities.

Mrs. Bachmann continued the attacks in a fundraising email blast on Saturday. In it, she criticized the governor’s comments. “Our nation is trillions of dollars in debt, millions of Americans are without a job, yet Rick Perry sees it fit to offer in-state tuition to people who are not here legally,” she says. “It just doesn’t add up.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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