The question of which Republican will face Barack Obama in next year's presidential election has been blown wide open, after grassroots activists dealt a straw-poll defeat to the frontrunner Rick Perry and major donors trawled for a new heavyweight candidate to enter the race.
Mr Perry, the Governor of Texas, looked in danger of becoming the latest contender to see his campaign launch like a rocket only to fall to Earth like a Nasa satellite.
Despite being the only major candidate to have put resources into the straw poll in Florida, he came in a distant second place to the pizza mogul Herman Cain, who topped the poll with 37 per cent to Mr Perry's 15 per cent. Mr Cain's campaign is such a long shot that his strong showing in the Sunshine State poll was the equivalent of a vote for "none of the above". Mitt Romney, the former private equity boss and Massachusetts Governor who is Mr Perry's only close rival, gained 14 per cent.
Another straw poll in Michigan yesterday saw Mr Romney win by 51 per cent in his stronghold, to Mr Perry's 17 per cent. Mr Cain was third. The doubts over Mr Perry's campaign accelerated after a dismal performance in the latest television debate, held in Florida last week, when the Texan fumbled over his attacks on Mr Romney and angered the very conservative base that has been hankering for an anti-Romney champion. He conceded his weakness the next day, but tried to brush off his poor showing. "Values and vision matter," he said. "It's not who is the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater."
The Florida straw poll was the culmination of three days of events for the Republican contenders in a state that counts for 27 of the 538 electoral votes in a presidential election and is one of the big swing states that can deliver the White House. Mr Romney left the state after the debate, did not compete in the poll and dismissed its result. Mr Perry, by contrast, had chided the other contenders for skipping the event and bought breakfast for hundreds of the activists gathering for the poll.
Mr Cain, who used to run the Godfather's Pizza chain and now has a radio show, wowed the audience with a fiery speech that appealed to the anti-establishment mood.
Mr Perry's defeat raised the possibility that his late-comer campaign could peter out just like other anti-Romney campaigns this year. One poor debate performance was all it took to undermine Tim Pawlenty, a conservative Minnesota Governor, who demurred when given an opportunity to attack Mr Romney's record on healthcare. Michele Bachmann, an early darling of the conservative wing and the Tea Party movement, had the steam taken out of her campaign because of concerns about her electability. She polled less than 2 per cent in Florida on Saturday.
Mr Perry has stumbled as mainstream Republicans worried he will alienate independent voters with his stance denying man-made climate change and swashbuckling rhetoric that included calling the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, a traitor. Conservatives, meanwhile, have been disappointed to learn that his record in government in Texas is not as ideologically pure as hoped. His support for vaccinating schoolgirls against cervical cancer and for educating the children of illegal immigrants lost him support.
Mr Perry led Mr Romney in national polls of Republican voters in the run-up to the Florida debate, though Mr Romney fares slightly better in a theoretical match-up with President Obama in surveys of all voters. This weekend, the Perry campaign was urgently planning to focus on other ways to press his cause, including through policy speeches and "town-hall" style meetings with voters. An important test will be the 30 September fund-raising deadline after which all the campaigns will report their latest donor hauls.
Meanwhile, major donors are continuing to press for a new anti-Romney candidate, with speculation swirling that the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie might reconsider his refusal to enter the race. Governor Christie, a political bruiser whose blunt rhetorical style will contrast sharply with Mr Romney's slickness, has had to rule out running for the White House in 2012 so many times that he once exasperatedly told reporters he would have to commit suicide to prove he is serious. East Coast donors who have attended fund-raisers with the Governor in recent days have emerged with the feeling that he may reconsider.Reuse content