Reporting from Tampa, Fla. -- A threatening cloud hung low over the Orange County Convention Center on Saturday evening as top members of Gov. Rick Perry’s brain trust left a place their candidate would love to forget.
Perry had just capped a shaky showing in a debate there Thursday evening with a stinging straw vote defeat at the hands of the Hermanator, longshot Herman Cain, who outpolled the GOP presidential front-runner by better than two-to-one.
The Texans’ chins were up, but their public reaction to the initial setback of their man’s six-week-old campaign didn’t pass the straight-face test: they claimed it was actually a setback for Mitt Romney.
Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner, whose candidate led Romney by 9 percentage points in a statewide poll in Florida released just two days earlier, told reporters the straw vote “must be a devastating loss” for Romney and “a morale buster for his campaign in a state like Florida.”
The former Massachusetts governor, argued Perry’s men, has been running for more than five years, and all he could manage was a measly 14 percent. (Barely one point less than Perry).
True, Romney’s campaign had reached out to convention delegates, quietly seeking their support in emails and other contacts. But Romney’s efforts at the Florida GOP convention weren’t in the same league as Perry’s. Romney also announced publicly that he wasn’t competing in the straw vote, which meant he didn’t appear in person or send a surrogate to deliver a pitch to the delegates in the hours leading up to the balloting.
All the other candidates, save Michele Bachmann, who finished dead last, were represented. They either spoke or sent a representative. Some, like Perry, both sent a representative and showed a slick video on the giant TV screens hung throughout the basement of the convention center, where the 5,000 chairs were mostly filled. (Perry also had campaign commercials, including a bio spot that played around the clock on the TV sets in delegates’ hotel rooms.)
On the morning of the vote, Perry shook hundreds of hands, signed autographs, posed for pictures, and made small-talk with the delegates. He also met privately with party leaders, elected officials and key activists. He spent lavishly to woo the straw-vote electorate—including a large buffet breakfast spread on Saturday morning offered gratis to every delegate. At best half showed up, leaving tables groaning with uneaten bagels, scrambled eggs, bacon and fruit. At the end of the governor’s rather perfunctory eight-minute speech, the breakfast crowd offered a rather perfunctory round of applause, the first public clue that all might not be going well in Perryville.
The Texan’s campaign fielded the largest cadre of volunteers and paid staff at the event. His staffers, wires dangling from their ears (a touch, and expense, that no other campaign matched), were very much in evidence Saturday inside the convention hall, as they distributed signs and buttonholed delegates. Another visible sign of the considerable investment Perry made in Florida: signage that included a huge banner hanging in the foyer of the convention hall, which greeted the 3,000 delegates starting on debate night; Perry’s campaign paid an undisclosed sum to the state party for the privilege.
Romney, pinching pennies in his second presidential run, made no such outlays. He departed Friday, and though his campaign had a small operation at the event, it didn’t have the visibility of Perry’s (or, for that matter, Ron Paul’s, Rick Santorum or Cain’s). Romney supporters came, voted for their man and wore campaign stickers with his name. There was little in the results to support the claim of a prominent Perry backer, state Rep. Matt Gaetz, delivered via Twitter shortly before the roof caved in, that the Romneyites had secretly been instructed to vote en masse for Cain; a similar rumor a few hours earlier had them supposedly going for Paul.
As the trio of Perry’s top aides -- Miner, campaign manager Rob Johnson and chief strategist David Carney -- left the sleek white convention center, they couldn’t miss the bright blue campaign bus of Cain, the David to their Goliath, who won the hearts and votes of the delegates on the strength of his powerful oratory.
Carney said that what happened in Orlando wouldn’t change what the campaign was doing. He indicated that it would be foolish to overreact to every development that takes place along the way. And he also said the governor, who is just starting out as a national candidate, had benefited from the opportunity to meet and develop personal connections with key Republican officials and activists in Florida, a battleground in both the primary and general elections.
“It’s a long campaign,” Carney said.