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Orlando, Fla. • In a startling embarrassment for the Republican presidential front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was tripped up by businessman Herman Cain in a straw ballot of Florida Republican activists Saturday that Perry himself had touted as an important measure of the field.
The vote has no bearing on the choice of a 2012 nominee but, along with recent campaign events, is likely to increase the chances that the Republican contest will tighten. It comes on the heels of a performance by Perry in a Florida debate Thursday night that disappointed conservatives, including delegates who came to Orlando expecting to back the Texas governor.
Cain received 37 percent of the 2,600 delegate votes, more than twice as many as Perry, who made by far the most extensive effort but finished a distant second with 15 percent. He barely edged out Mitt Romney, who did not compete here, at 14 percent. Romney was followed by former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania with 11 percent; Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 10 percent; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 8 percent and former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, 2 percent.
Michele Bachmann, who scored a high-profile straw vote victory in Iowa six weeks ago, finished last, with less than 2 percent. The Minnesota congresswoman also chose not to compete.
Perry may have been hurt by his decision to leave town hours before the vote. (He was represented by a surrogate, as were other candidates.)
But interviews with delegates indicated a far more likely reason for Perry's fall: his subpar debate performance, in which he fumbled answers and alienated social conservatives by calling critics of his immigration record "heartless."
Cain, as he has done at similar activist events around the country, swept the crowd away with an impassioned speech urging thousands of delegates to "send Washington a message" that the nation is "ready for a problem solver, not another politician." The Atlanta businessman and former talk-show host was one of only three candidates to appear in person; Gingrich and Santorum were the others.
Cain's message struck a chord with delegates like Jeff Lukens, 54, who came to the Orange County Convention Center expecting to vote for Perry but was turned off by the debate. Lukens said he gave Perry a pass on the immigration issue, because he's a border-state governor. But he found the Texan's answer on a question about Pakistan to be "incoherent."
Going into the nonbinding popularity contest, Perry invested far more money and manpower than his GOP rivals. At a lavish buffet breakfast that his campaign provided to convention delegates Saturday, Perry said his rivals were making "a big mistake" to skip the event.
Cain spent three days in and around Orlando, parked his campaign bus outside the convention hall and hosted hundreds of delegates at a hotel reception Friday night.
However, his lightly funded campaign has virtually no infrastructure and remains far behind the leaders in the polls. Even those who voted for him Saturday said they don't expect him to win the Florida primary this winter.
"I know Cain isn't going to be nominated," Lukens said. "This was an opportunity to vote how you really feel."