ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida Republicans threatened to shake up the Republican presidential race Saturday, giving business executive Herman Cain a solid win in a straw poll and delivering a sharp rebuke to front-runner Rick Perry.
Cain took 37.1 percent of the straw poll votes, cast by 2,657 Republicans at a state party gathering in Orlando. Perry, the Texas governor who had vowed to compete for the symbolic victory in a critical state, trailed far behind with 15.4 percent.
"We still have work to do," Perry spokesman Mark Miner said after the vote. "We'll be campaigning six days a week."
He congratulated Cain, then noted that at least Perry outpolled former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, widely seen until now as Perry's chief rival for the nomination. Romney finished third, with 14 percent.
"It's a devastating loss for Romney," Miner said. "He finished third after being in this race for five and half years. We've just been in the race for five and a half weeks."
Still, many of the Republicans attending the event said they turned away from Perry after watching him turn in a weak performance at a debate here on Thursday.
Pat Palaio, a caregiver from Perry, Fla., said she switched from Perry after watching the debate on Thursday.
"I was leaning toward Perry," she said. "He didn't come across well in the debate. We need someone who can win the debate going forward. He has to compete against Barack Obama."
Instead, she voted Saturday for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, calling him sure footed and solidly conservative.
The rest of the results:
Santorum, 10.9 percent;
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 10.4 percent;
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 8.4 percent;
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, 2.3 percent;
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, 1.5 percent.
The last place finish was a stinging result for Bachmann, whose first-place win in an Iowa straw poll six weeks ago helped thrust her into the top tier of candidates.
The Iowa straw poll was about machinery; Florida was more about the message and messengers.
The Iowa poll tested the ability of campaigns to get supporters to Ames, Iowa, for a Saturday afternoon and allowed candidates to greatly influence the results by spending freely to rent space at the event for tents, bands and food.
In the Florida competition, candidates did not have to rent space and were not allowed to buy tickets for blocks of their own supporters. They were free to woo delegates off site _Perry sponsored a breakfast Saturday at a hotel across the street.
But mostly, with delegates in town for three days to watch a debate and hear from the candidates in speeches, the Florida event served as a giant focus group with Republican activists weighing what the candidates were saying and how well they said it.
Cain was one of three candidates who stayed to speak to the attendees one more time Saturday afternoon, along with Santorum and Gingrich.
Andrea Floyd, a teacher from Miami-Dade County, said she hadn't even heard of Cain before arriving in Orlando for the three days of speeches and debates. By Saturday, she was sold.
"He is such an inspiring man," she said.
"Florida is important," said Gov. Rick Scott. "The road to the White House goes right through Florida. It pays to be here."
The Florida straw poll in the past predicted the winners of the Republican nomination. Ronald Reagan won in it 1979, George H.W. Bush won it in 1987, and Bob Dole won it in 1995. It has not been held in the last several elections.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011