Sunday, September 25, 2011

How Cain Won Florida

by Byron York Chief Political Correspondent

ORLANDO - It wasn't fully clear at the time, but the political ground was shifting under Rick Perry's feet from virtually the moment he arrived here in Orlando for the Republican presidential debate and Florida GOP straw poll. Just how much the ground shifted wasn't apparent until early Saturday evening, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced the poll's results: Perry, and fellow leader Mitt Romney, and the rest of the Republican field finished far behind longshot winner Herman Cain.

It was a huge victory for Cain in a key state. After all, Gov. Scott said repeatedly that the straw poll would choose the next president. "I believe whoever wins this straw poll on Saturday will be the Republican nominee and I believe the Republican nominee will be the next president," Scott told Fox News earlier in the week. And Perry himself said just hours before the poll that, "I've got all my hopes on Florida." (Of course, shortly after uttering those words, Perry got on a plane for Michigan, passing up an opportunity to address straw poll voters in person before the balloting, which probably didn't help his chances.)

The final results were Cain 37.1 percent; Perry 15.4 percent; Romney 14.0 percent; Rick Santorum 10.9 percent; Ron Paul 10.4 percent; Newt Gingrich 8.4 percent; Jon Huntsman 2.3 percent; and Michele Bachmann 1.5 percent.

Perry made a big effort to win the straw poll, and a week before the voting, it appeared he would reap big benefits. He had the money, he had the organization, he had the endorsements. And Cain? The Georgia businessman received his first endorsement less than 24 hours before the voting, when Florida state Rep. Scott Plakon announced he was supporting Cain. "I met with [Perry and Romney], and they're both very good candidates," Plakon said later, "but I just couldn't get there. And my wife kept saying to me for days, what about Herman Cain?" One thing led to another, and Plakon sat down for a talk with Cain on Friday evening. The two hit it off, and 20 minutes later, Plakon recalls, "I shook his hand and said, 'I'm all in.'" Minutes after that, Plakon found himself introducing Cain before hundreds of loud, enthusiastic supporters. It was a good moment for both, but that was pretty much the extent of Cain's establishment support.

Meanwhile, dozens, maybe hundreds of GOP delegates who came to Orlando intending to support Perry were having second thoughts. They'd all been in the room for the Fox News-Google debate on Thursday night and were dismayed by Perry's performance. Actually, more than dismayed -- some were insulted by Perry's accusation that people who don't support his immigration positions are heartless. Still, they didn't immediately drop the Texas governor, did not immediately say, "That's it -- I'm outta here." Rather, in the 40 hours after the end of the debate, their minds were a little more open than they had been before. And most were specifically a little more open to Cain, who impressed them during the debate and had made a number of impromptu appearances around the hotels adjacent to the Orange County Convention Center.

But even on Saturday, Perry might still have recovered some support with an inspiring speech before the voting. Instead, he headed off to Michigan, and it was Cain who delivered a barn-burner that brought at least seven standing ovations from the delegates. Wavering Perry delegates became Cain voters.

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