TAMPA -- OK, so maybe the Republican presidential nomination fight isn't a private affair between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry after all. Lobstah and four-alarm chili will have to make room for pepperoni.
In a weekend political rodeo in Orlando that included a straw vote on the part of nearly 3,000 conservative Florida Republican activists, Romney underperformed. But Perry got absolutely waxed among growing doubts that's he's the un-Romney so many conservative voters are looking for.
The conservative Republicans at Presidency 5 were supposed to be Perry's crowd, not so much Romney's. Romney does better with the regular, less-red meat run of Florida Republican. But in addition to a weak debating performance, Perry used the sure-to-fail tactic of lecturing his base, calling those who opposed his Texas DREAM-Act (which includes in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens) "heartless." It was down hill for Perry after that.
To the surprise of political experts everywhere, the runaway winner in Saturday's vote was former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain at 37 percent. Perry was second at 15, with Romney third at 14. Rick Santorum was fourth with 11 percent. National weird uncle Ron Paul got 10 percent, Newt Gingrich 8. Jon Huntsman punched above his weight at two percent. The amazing disappearing Michelle Bachmann was almost off the screen at one percent.
"This is a sign of our growing momentum and my candidacy that cannot be ignored," Cain said after the results were known.
Well, yes. But it's unclear how much Big-Mo Cain will get from this impressive Florida win. It will surely have happy consequences for his short-term fundraising (unhappy ones for Perry's), and he'll be getting more media attention next week than last. But will it last?
It would be a mistake to think of Cain's weekend victory as a fluke. He's enormously engaging, an inspirational speaker, and a man of real accomplishment in the business world. The line in his stump speech about how he's "not a professional politician" always get big applause.
This weekend's vote may have been partly a reward for Cain's boffo debate performance Thursday and a moving speech Friday. But Cain's platform, which he is good at articulating, is unambiguously conservative by any standard. He is, as we Southern recovering Episcopalians are fond of saying, a mensch. He's for real, and may well have staying power.
Perry, on the other hand, is showing signs of stress fracture, and may well be on his way back to AAA ball. His reason for being in the race was as the conservative who could win. The guy Republicans not comfortable with Romney could get behind. But the more Republicans learn about his immigration policies, which include his dreamy DREAM-act and opposition to a border fences, and about his requirement that all government school girls in Texas be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease, the more many of them wonder how conservative Perry, a Democrat until 1988, really is.
Creeping ideological doubts aside, Perry's stock also went down thanks to yet another poor debate performance. At various points in Thursday night's services, Perry looked somewhere between lame and lost. He just didn't look as smart as Romney, though both of them at times looked like a bickering old married couple. We've already elected one inarticulate former Texas governor as president.
During Friday's speeches, Perry pounded the theme that Americans aren't looking for the "slickest" candidate, or the one who is the most skilled debater. An understandable line for him to take considering his Thursday night fumbling. But it availed him not much. Perhaps many who voted for Cain or another candidate than Perry feared that in debates with Barack O'Barnum next year, Perry would have his butt handed to him, as he did Thursday night.
Now the sun will shine more brightly on Herman Cain, and many conservatives are eager to see what he will do with this opportunity. Those with the merest familiarity with political history understand how perishable the bumps from straw votes, caucuses, even primaries can be. Cain picked up a clear and impressive victory Saturday. He will have to build on it if he's to have any hope of replacing our current socialist president.
Whoever wins the Republican nomination for president will have a good shot at Florida's 29 electoral votes. A Quinnipiac poll released last week shows 57 percent of Florida voters disapproving of the job Obama is doing as president, while only 37 percent approve. The poll shows that if the election were held last week (and how many conservatives in America wish it were?), Romney would beat Obama 47-40 in Florida while Perry would lose 42 to 44. But as fresh as these poll numbers are, the events of Presidency 5 show just how short political lifetimes can be, and leave Herman Cain, now a contendah, looking for a rematch.
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