ORLANDO - Business entrepreneur Herman Cain shocked the political world by winning the Florida GOP's influential presidential straw poll Saturday, while Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann finished last in the field of eight.
Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza CEO who appears to have caught fire in recent weeks, topped the GOP field with 37.1 percent of the 2,657 votes cast. Bachmann, in a stunning reversal of her Iowa straw poll win last month, received only 40 ballots, or 1.51 percent.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the current leader in most polls, finished second with 15.4 percent of the delegates' votes in Florida, edging out former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won 14 percent.
Neither Bachmann nor Romney actively campaigned for the poll, and their supporters were not in evidence while the ballots were counted. But both took part in Thursday's nationally televised Florida GOP debate and then addressed activists again Friday.
Bachmann's poor showing in Florida seemed to further diminish her fast-waning campaign, which started strong in June with a well-received debate performance in New Hampshire.
The Bachmann campaign released a statement minimizing the result: "Florida is an important state in the presidential race, but we chose not to participate in the (Florida GOP) Poll, which is open to select delegates. We got into the presidential race late and dedicated our resources to the Iowa straw poll, which is open to all Iowans with a valid ID. Michele won the Iowa poll with less time and money than the other candidates in the race."
Romney has questioned whether any straw polls are a true reflection of voter sentiment and did not campaign in the Iowa contest either.
Unlike the Ames Straw Poll, nearly all major candidates were included on the Florida ballot, and delegates representing counties throughout the state paid their way to the event. The Florida straw poll is considered a key measure of candidate strength because of Florida's importance as a large swing state, and because GOP activists were casting ballots at a time when the field is thought to be in a settling phase that will weed out weaker candidates. The last three Florida GOP straw poll winners have become their party's nominee.
"This weekend is the defining moment," said Florida Republican Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which held a regional conference at the same site as the Florida Republican gathering.
While other candidates or their surrogates addressed the delegates immediately before the vote, Bachmann and Romney did not. Both might have paid the price. "The road to the White House is right through Florida," said Gov. Rick Scott. "It pays to be here."
While the results clearly raise questions about Bachmann's viability as a national candidate, political analysts also treated them as a rebuke to Perry, who many thought put in a sub-par performance in Thursday's debate.
Bachmann had appeared to electrify Florida Republicans on Thursday and Friday with a new pitch, arguing that conservatives shouldn't have to "settle" for a moderate to take on a weakened President Obama.
But for some, questions still linger about her chances on the big stage. "She's a strong personality," said Jerry Jacobe, an Orlando activist carrying around a "Pro-family, Pro-freedom" placard. But Jacobe questioned whether Bachmann could go the distance with a campaign that's hardly sunk roots in Florida. "It comes down to money, which ticks me off," he said. "But that's the reality. Maybe if she could raise some money, she'd have a chance."
Bachmann campaign manager Keith Nahigian said after the debate that her fundraising remains "pretty consistent," though she's still making up for the all-out effort she made in Iowa, where she spent an estimated $1.5 million to win the straw poll. While that was good enough to knock Minnesota rival Tim Pawlenty out of the race, it failed to pay lasting dividends. Bachmann has been polling in the single digits in recent weeks.
Among the rest of the field, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a perennial favorite among grass-roots activists, came in fifth behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, each receiving a little more than 10 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich finished sixth at 8.4 percent, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman finished seventh with 2.2 percent.