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Cain upsets Perry at Florida straw poll

From Andrew Rafferty, Carrie Dann, Jamie Novogrod

ORLANDO, Fla. – Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain claimed victory in today’s Florida straw poll, receiving more than double the amount of votes of front-runner Rick Perry.

Herman Cain upsets GOP front-runner Rick Perry with 37 percent of the vote in Florida's straw poll. NBC's Mike Viqueira reports.

Cain received 37 percent of the 2,657 delegate votes cast here today.  Perry followed with 15.4 percent.  Romney was a close third with 14 percent of the vote.

Cain spent this week campaigning in Florida along the I-4 corridor running between Tampa and Orlando.  His events were held in front of local county Republican groups ripe with straw poll delegates.  But his victory may also represent the result of Perry’s showing Thursday at the Fox/Google debate.

Many of those gathered for Presidency 5 – the three-day event that concluded with this straw poll – expressed concern that sniping between the front-runners had opened opportunities for the trailing candidates.  Perry surrogate Michael Williams, a former Texas Railroad commissioner and current congressional candidate, used his time in front of the delegates to try to reassure those put off by Perry's uneven performance.

"We are not electing a debater-in-chief," Williams said to applause from the crowd. "We are electing a commander-in-chief."

Perry’s national press secretary, Mark Miner, said the results were “not at all a setback” to the campaign. He dismissed the idea that the second place showing demonstrates that Perry has been unable to shake off a rough debate performance Thursday.

"Debates are part of the process but we are taking our message directly to the people. Mitt Romney has been doing debates and running for president for five and a half years and he comes in third. Must be a devastating loss for him and a morale buster for his campaign in a state like Florida after five and a half years.

The other major storyline from today’s event was Michele Bachmann's eighth-place finish – last among the contenders.  It marks another chapter in an odyssey taking her from victory this summer at the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, to a recent slip in polls and the departure of her high-profile campaign manager, Ed Rollins.

Florida Republican operatives tell NBC that Bachmann missed an opportunity here. They point to her decision not to devote resources to the Florida straw poll – which meant that her campaign could not address delegates Saturday morning.

"With Perry's poor performance at the debate, this would have been an incredible opportunity for her to come out and really reestablish herself," says Sarasota County GOP chairman Joe Gruters. "But without her being here, you know there's nothing she can do."

Bachmann participated in two days of Florida GOP events this week, including Thursday's FOX/Google debate, but left the state after her speech Friday morning to CPAC.

During a visit to a Tampa suburb in late August, Bachmann told reporters that the crowded debate schedule during the run-up to Florida’s straw poll prevented her from committing to the event. “We have a number of places that we need to be, and to meaningfully participate in the straw poll we would have to be just exclusively in Florida all the time,” she said.

It was the first straw poll held in the Sunshine State since 1995.

None were held during the 2000 or 2008 campaign cycles – due largely to the fact that candidates did not want to shift time and resources to the large and expensive state of Florida.

Candidates vying for the White House in 2012 spent this week talking about the important role Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, will play in the general election, but few mentioned the straw poll itself.

Cain, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were the only candidates to address the delegates inside the Orange County Convention Center today, and Bachmann and Romney did not so much as send surrogates to address straw poll voters.

New figures about Texas' jobless rate are raising some tough questions about Rick Perry's claim to be the leading jobs creator in the GOP field. NBC's Michael Isikoff reports.

Still, Florida Republican voters got multiple chances to see the candidates this week as part of the Presidency 5 events. Between Thursday's Faith and Freedom Coalition Rally and Fox News debate, plus the Conservative Political Action Conference's road trip to Orlando on Friday, all the candidates were campaigning in the state.

Straw poll votes were tallied from Republicans from all of the state's 67 counties. Floridians who wanted to participate needed to apply to be delegates, then get chosen through a lottery.

The three straw polls held before this in Florida have all picked the eventual primary winner. Ronald Reagan was the first winner in 1979, followed by George H.W. Bush in 1987 and then Bob Dole in 1995.

“If Florida tradition holds, this could be the launching pad of a big twist,” said Brian Hughes, communications director for the Republican Party of Florida.

The full results are below

Today at the Republican Party of Florida’s Presidency 5, 2,657 delegates cast their votes in the party’s straw poll. The results are as follows:

  1. Herman Cain, 37.1%
  2. Rick Perry, 15.4%
  3. Mitt Romney, 14.0%
  4. Rick Santorum, 10.9%
  5. Ron Paul, 10.4%
  6. Newt Gingrich, 8.4%
  7. Jon Huntsman, 2.3%
  8. Michele Bachmann, 1.5%                        

**UPDATE**

The Bachmann campaign released this statement on the Presidency 5 Florida straw poll:

"Florida is an important state in the presidential race, but we chose not to participate in the P5 Poll which is open to select delegates.  We got into the presidential race late and dedicated our resources to the Iowa straw poll which is open to all Iowans with a valid ID; Michele won the Iowa poll with less time and money than the other candidates in the race."