- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2011

ORLANDO, Fla. — Rick Perry’s campaign is not in its death throes, Mitt Romney is still the candidate to beat, Herman Cain is not the new front-runner and Chris Christie — too liberal too often — will not jump into the race. That’s the assessment from Republican Party delegates and conservative activists after a tumultuous week here in Florida.

Mr. Cain trounced Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney in a weekend poll of 2,657 GOP delegates at this state’s Conservative Political Action Conference following Thursday night’s presidential-candidates debate. But even some of Mr. Cain’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that the Georgia businessman still has an uphill task — even though the winner of the Florida Republican Party straw poll historically has ended up as the GOP nominee.

“Some pundits today are going to conclude Cain is now in the first tier, and the rest of the field is scrambled and narrowly separated,” said former Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas, who now heads the American Conservative Union. “My view is for Cain … to be perceived longer-term as first tier, he will have to do a lot better at fundraising and organization.”

Zack Smith, 23, a law student from Pensacola, wore a Rick Perry sticker and said he liked Mr. Cain, but he didn’t think the former Godfather’s Pizza executive really has a chance at the nomination and thinks Mr. Perry would make a better candidate against President Obama.

Still, the long-shot candidate’s straw poll win opened plenty of eyes. Delegate Richard Johnson, a Palm Beach County political campaign consultant, said Saturday that Mr. Cain was the “obvious rising star from the Thursday debate through CPAC on Friday and his speech today.”

In interview after interview, Republicans attending the conference here Friday and the straw poll Saturday said they were looking for a candidate who wouldn’t lie to them — a candidate who would do in office what he promised in campaigning.

Jason Freeman, a civil engineer in Orlando, said he thought Mr. Cain fit the bill on that score, but he voted for Ron Paul instead. “I believe in a sound currency, cutting taxes, ending an empire around the world — and Paul is the only one who is not a fake and phony on stage,” he said.

But as to whether Mr. Cain has a realistic shot at the nomination, Mr. Freeman said, “probably not. I think it still ends up being a Romney-Perry race.”

Mr. Cain’s showing — his 37 percent of the straw poll delegates more than doubled the combined vote of Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney — had some observers predicting that other candidates such as Mr. Christie, the New Jersey governor, would parachute into a race now full of candidates that the GOP base is less than gaga over.

“I was really impressed the way people warmed up to him over the last several days,” said delegate Chuck Quackenbush, a deputy sheriff in Fort Myers who voted for Mr. Cain, and his delegate wife, Chris, who voted for Rick Santorum. Both said they know who Mr. Christie is but think it would be pointless for him to get into the race because he’s too liberal.

“It’s too late for another candidate to get in, and Christie’s attitude on certain things such as global warming would disturb me and a lot of Republican voters,” Mr. Quackenbush said.

The utility of the poll as an accurate predictor of the eventual nominee may have been undermined this year by the decisions of all the candidates except for Mr. Cain, Mr. Santorum and Newt Gingrich to leave Friday or Saturday, before the CPAC event was over.

Many delegates vented their frustration afterward.

“The people that are leaving this event now that the vote’s been announced, this was a massive letdown for them,” said Tim Nance, 60, a retired agribusiness manager and delegate from Naples.

Sweeping his hand toward the vast area of the convention hall where seating for 3,500 delegates had been roped off, Mr. Nance said, “I heard everybody, everywhere there saying these guys are not here, I’m not going to vote for them. I saw that everywhere.”

“They were really let down that the candidates — except for Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — didn’t show up today,” Mr. Nance said. “They wanted someone who would finish. Even Ron Paul disciples, tons of them I know, said, ‘You know what, I’m really annoyed this man did not follow through.’ Same with Perry supporters.”

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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