ORLANDO — Herman Cain, trailing far behind in every poll for the Republican nomination for president, stunned his better-known rivals by handsomely winning the Florida straw poll in Orlando on Saturday.
The victory of the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive from Georgia delighted black Republicans in the state, who were quick to hail his win.
Samuel Newby, chairman of the Florida Assembly of Black Republicans, sent a letter to Cain from Jacksonville congratulating him for “your great and decisive victory.”
“I have heard the comments of media and political pundits who have been attempting to discount your victory by saying that it was a ‘protest vote’ … I can as-sure you that this was no protest vote. It was a genuine expression of support for your message, philosophy and your goals for our nation from every geographical area of our state — from the largest to the smallest of our 67 counties,” Newby wrote.
Newby said delegates from his group who attended the poll liked what Cain said, “your clear message to deliver this country out of financial ruins as well as your knowledge on the issues we face.”
He also commended the candidate for attending the recent National Black Chamber of Commerce meeting in Miami in July that featured Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, a Republican and the highest-ranking black elected official in Florida.
“Your presence at this important gathering of African and Caribbean-American business leaders from around the nation sent a strong message that you believe in outreach and inclusion in our party and that every vote counts — not only in Florida but throughout the nation,” Newby wrote.
The Associated Press reported from Orlando that Cain garnered the support of 986 delegates in the test vote, more than double the 410 votes that went to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, widely believed the frontrunner for the nomination.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, also regarded as a leading candidate, got 372 votes, followed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
“He can win. He can beat Obama,” said Cynthia Henderson, president of the Tallahassee Republican Women’s Club Federated, who cast her vote for Cain, AP reported. “Now he has the motivation to raise money. He went toe to toe with everybody and made a difference. It will have to help him. It’s fun.”
The AP reported that Cain fired up Republican activists at all his stops during the three days of events and “an enormous roar” went up when Gov. Rick Scott announced the results.
Scott repeatedly said the straw poll would propel a candidate to the nomination.
“I wouldn’t disagree with him,” Cain said Thursday evening. “But I don’t think it’s make or break. I think you cannot win the straw poll and you can still win the nomination but, if you win the straw poll, it’s a tremendous boost of momentum to your particular campaign.”
And, he said, the event is a big deal.
The three previous presidential straw polls organized by the party were won by the eventual nominee: Ronald Reagan in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1987 and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole in 1995.
Though Perry said the event was important, his campaign played down the results.
“He’s the commander in chief, not the debater in chief,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. “Debates are part of the process, but we’re taking our message right to the people. Mitt Romney has been doing debates and running for president for five and a half years and he comes in third; it must be a devastating loss for him.”
Perry’s campaign more actively reached out to delegates. Romney chose not to participate in Saturday’s event, though he addressed attendees at events Thursday and Friday.
Photo: CAROL PORTER/FOR SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES
UNDERDOG: Herman Cain pulled an upset at the Republican Party of Florida straw poll on Saturday in Orlando.