ORLANDO, Florida (AP) — Texas Gov. Rick Perry worked to convince Florida Republicans Saturday that he is the strongest contender for the party’s presidential nomination despite a shaky debate performance earlier this week that has sparked jitters about his bid.
Perry lost a key test vote in Florida to businessman Herman Cain on Saturday despite making a strong effort to win. Perry’s second-place finish in the straw poll came just days after he faltered in a debate in Orlando, Florida.
Perry’s recent troubles have sparked another round of angst among Republicans about their slate of presidential candidates.
Republicans in early voting states, once excited about the Texas governor’s presidential bid, are openly questioning the strength of his candidacy. High expectations have been met by the sudden national scrutiny that comes with the front-runner bull’s-eye.
Perry is leading national polls, but he is also facing intensifying criticism from the right and left. Some Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire are expressing doubts, especially after debates in which rivals raised questions about his record on immigration, public health and Social Security retirement benefits.
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Cain, a conservative radio host and former CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain of resturants, captured 37.1 percent of the vote at Saturday’s Presidency 5 straw poll in Orlando, with Perry coming in second with 15.4 percent.
Former Massachusetts Gov Mitt Romney came in third with 14 percent and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania followed with 10.88 percent.
While all declared candidates were on the ballot, the first-tier candidates did not compete. Perry bought hundreds of activists’ breakfasts on the sidelines before heading to Michigan. Romney skipped and didn’t send representatives to the forum. Romney and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota both left Florida before the voting began and their campaigns discounted the straw poll’s role in the campaign. Bachmann finished eighth with 1.51 percent in the straw poll.
The results were unlikely to shuffle the campaign’s standings. Instead, they were mostly a popularity contest among the delegates selected by local party organizations.
But previous straw polls have predicted the Republican nominee.
Ronald Reagan won in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1987 and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole in 1995. The Republican Party of Florida, however, has not organized the test vote in recent years.
A Florida poll victory could prove helpful, especially ahead of Friday’s deadline for reporting the latest quarterly fundraising figures.
From Florida, Perry headed later Saturday to a Republican gathering on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Romney, the son of a former Michigan governor, was set to address the crowd Saturday evening in the state where he spent his youth.
Perry made a glancing reference to his chief rival during a 15-minute address at the Grand Hotel, where photos of former Gov. George Romney hang from the walls.
“There may be slicker candidates and there might be smoother debaters, but I know what I believe in,” he said in between attacks on President Barack Obama’s health care law and boasts about his job-creating record in Texas.
His remarks, which offered him the chance to introduce himself to Michigan voters, also were an acknowledgement that his campaign is trying to shake off the perception that he’s struggling after a lackluster debate performance Thursday in Florida.
Perry’s strident defense of cheaper in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants put him on the wrong side of the Republican Party’s conservative base. His rivals worked to exploit his opposition to a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border and his support of a mandatory vaccine for girls against a sexually transmitted disease.
One national immigration group says Perry is finished, and conservatives are slamming his support of education benefits for illegal immigrants.
The campaign dismisses the criticism. After all, supporters say, he entered the presidential race just six weeks ago.
Things looked rosier then. Perry arrived to great fanfare and seemed poised to steal significant support from his top rival, Romney. Many influential Republican activists saw Perry, with his executive experience and good jobs record, as an attractive alternative to Romney, who has struggled to win over conservatives who make up a sizeable portion of the party base.
Since then, the Texan has campaigned repeatedly in New Hampshire and Iowa, states that host the nation’s first presidential voting contests in roughly four months.
And unaligned Republicans in those states — including some who backed Romney four years ago and are looking for an alternative — have watched Perry closely this month to see if the early buzz would become lasting campaign strength. But his debate performances, including bobbled attempts Thursday night in Florida at painting Romney as a flip-flopper, did not impress some influential activists.
Besides accusing Romney of being a flip-flopper, Perry suggested that those who oppose Texas’ immigration law are heartless and he gave a wobbly response to a question on Pakistan, making him seem unprepared.
Activists have discovered policy differences as they get to know Perry better.
He has drawn sharp criticism for requiring 6th-grade girls in Texas to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cancer, a position that frustrates libertarians and social conservatives alike. And on immigration, Perry’s opposition to a border fence and support for education benefits for illegal immigrants who came to the country as children have been unpleasantly eye-opening to some in Iowa.
“Immigration and the vaccines are just tough sells,” said former state Republican chairman Richard Schwarm, a Romney supporter in 2008 who has not yet committed to a candidate. “There are a lot of things people like about him, but those issues cause people a lot of problems.”
Some national groups have been less diplomatic.
“Rick Perry is finished,” said Americans for Legal Immigration’s campaign arm in a statement Friday.
Perry also raised eyebrows for coming in a surprising fourth in a New Hampshire poll this week, getting just 8 percent and ranking well behind Romney while also trailing Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
The campaign hopes for a boost at the end of the month when it releases its quarterly fundraising totals, Perry’s first such report. He is known as a prolific fundraiser and has devoted considerable energy to filling his campaign coffers. A strong showing could help quiet questions.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Orlando, Florida, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.