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Rick Perry hopes for Florida straw poll victory

Sep 24, 2011, 11:16 a.m.
Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during the Republican Party of Florida presidential candidates debate in Orlando, Florida September 22, 2011. REUTERS/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Pool

By Jane Sutton and Steve Holland

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Republican Rick Perry on Saturday hoped to rebound from a shaky debate performance to win a Florida straw poll that is an important test of strength in a state crucial to victory in the November 2012 U.S. presidential election.

Perry, the Texas governor, created doubts among some conservatives at a debate with his Republican rivals on Thursday when he appeared to struggle to answer a foreign policy question and had difficulty driving home an attack on chief adversary Mitt Romney.

As many as 3,500 Florida Republican delegates were to vote in the straw poll later on Saturday with the results expected about 6 p.m. EDT. The straw poll is important to Perry because he actively participated in it.

Delegates were to hear remarks from longshot candidates Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Videotaped statements were expected from Perry and Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul was to have a surrogate speak for him.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and a third candidate, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, chose not to compete in the straw poll but since they took part in the debate and spoke earlier to delegates at the convention in Orlando, the Florida Republican Party put their names on the ballot.

At a breakfast attended by 1,000 people, Perry took a jab at both Democratic President Barack Obama and Romney, who was widely viewed as having won Thursday's debate.

"You've seen what happens when our country chooses a leader who emphasizes words over deeds," he said. "We get a president like we have today. Americans don't need more slick promises. We need a principled leader who will stand on his conservative values."

Romney said early in his campaign that he would not participate in straw polls and Bachmann said after winning the Iowa straw poll in August that she would not compete in any more.

Florida's straw poll is a non-binding popularity poll and is significant only in terms of showing a candidate's strength the state.

Florida, the most populous of the presidential swing states, is a critical test for both Republicans and Democrats. The Florida vote was so close in the 2000 election that it led to a ballot recount battle between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, who was ruled the winner.

The state's Republican Party says that since 1979 every winner of the Florida straw poll has gone on to become the party's nominee. Senator John McCain won it in the 2008 cycle and defeated Romney to become the nominee.

Perry, the longest serving governor in Texas history, took over the job from Bush and recalled during the breakfast waiting on the recount results to determine whether he would become governor.

"For about a month and a half, my hopes of being the governor of the state of Texas were hanging in the balance. And here we are 11 years later and I've got all my hopes on Florida again," Perry said.

He said some candidates had spurned the tradition of the Florida straw poll, "and I think that's a big mistake. I think the Florida straw poll is very important."

The Romney camp lowered expectations for the straw poll, meaning his campaign would crow loudly should he do well in the event.

"Perry should win it by a large margin," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. "We're not competing. We respect the straw poll process but our campaign is focused on winning primaries and caucuses."

Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said he could not predict a winner.

"I have no idea," said Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party. "In the past I pretty much knew coming in who was going to win the thing."

Delegates voting in the straw poll are local elected officials, party leaders, donors and grassroots activists.

"If you're going to gear up to win a primary in the state of Florida in the months ahead ... these people are who you need in your camp," said Florida Republican Party spokesman Brian Hughes.

(Editing by Bill Trott)

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