Orlando, Fla. — Florida voters may have closed the door on a Presidency 5 straw-poll victory for Rick Perry, but they haven’t shut the window on the possibility of voting for him in the primary.
Perry’s poor debate performance — particularly his accusation that those who disagreed with him on providing in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants lacked a “heart” — upset delegates and almost certainly caused his devastating 20-points-plus loss to Herman Cain in the straw poll. But many Florida Republicans remain open to the idea of ultimately voting for Perry in the primary.
Florida retiree Judy O’Donnell says she’s “sticking” with Perry because she values his gubernatorial experience and his attitude. “I think Perry’s a fighter,” O’Donnell says. “And I want a fighter in there. I don’t want Casper Milquetoast.” Kearsten Angel, a Florida attorney, says she’s disappointed in Perry’s debate performances, but hasn’t give up on him yet. “I hope my initial gut feelings about him are correct,” she says. “He’s got a little bit of a learning curve.”
Many are also quick to point out that as the frontrunner from the time he entered, Perry has faced an enormously tough situation. “Given the fact that eight other candidates tried to beat him up, I thought he didn’t get any permanent scars,” remarks Walt Travinski, a business owner. O’Donnell points out that Perry faces an experience deficit. “I’m sticking with Perry,” she says. “I think that he’s not used to the big stage yet. Someone like Romney has had that experience a couple of times.” Angel notes that as governor of a state adjoining Mexico, Perry had to confront the issues surrounding immigration more than most governors.
Rosemary Mills, a delegate who attended Perry’s breakfast the morning of the straw poll but voted for Cain, is willing to give Perry the benefit of the doubt on his immigration statements. “I really wish that Perry would find a way to communicate that to the people so that we would understand what his [immigration] position is better. I’m open to hearing more,” Mills says, but adds that “the education of illegal immigrants concerns us, not because we have bad hearts, but because we think of our own children, too, and grandchildren and what opportunities they’ll have.”
“I’m sure that it came across differently than the way he feels,” agrees Barbara Stephens, another delegate.
Maria Oddo, a volunteer for Perry, shows that Perry — like Sarah Palin and Ron Paul — has the potential to attract an especially dedicated base. “He is being persecuted right now. Like Jesus,” she remarks, although she notes that she didn’t agree with his immigration position. “[I] work as hard for him as I did for Marco Rubio,” she says. “I believed in Marco, even though, when he started, he wasn’t winning either. But he was honest with us, the same way as Perry is.”
For many in senior-citizen-packed Florida, Perry’s immigration statements were far more worrisome than his description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.”
“Two or three years ago, if you had walked in here and say do something with Social Security and Medicare, the seniors would go, ‘absolutely not.’” Travinski says. But things have changed. “After two years of hearing day after day how bad it is, they are all recognizing we’ve got to do something. We’ve all got grandkids,” he remarks.
For Perry, winning a second act among Florida voters would require a revamped pitch — including easing off the fireworks between him and Romney during debates, which irked many of the voters that I spoke to. He would also face an uphill challenge winning back the support of those who dislike both his immigration policy and his dismissive rhetoric concerning those who disagree with him.
Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and former chair of the Florida GOP, notes that Perry could use upcoming debates to help redeem himself. “There are twelve, 15 rounds of debates,” he says, noting that Perry could use those debates “to hone his message and maybe rethink things.”
“He’s got to be defining himself as he goes forward,” Cardenas adds. “Romney’s had five years to do that. People have a better understanding of what he’s all about. Rick Perry has got to do in two months what Romney’s done in five years, and that’s make sure people understand well what he’s all about.
Cardenas also thinks that Perry needs to cool down his rhetoric, saying that while senior citizens are open to Social Security reform, any usage of the term “Ponzi scheme” should be a “non-starter” — and few are interested in making Social Security run by the states.
“Calling it a ‘Ponzi scheme’ doesn’t sit well even with movement conservatives,” Cardenas observes. “Calling for changes, I think conservatives are all for it. When Herman Cain speaks about the Chilean model, you don’t see anyone jumping up in fear, right?”
Delegate Barbara Stephens has a specific idea about how Perry could revitalize his candidacy.
“A Perry/Cain combination would be dynamite,” she gushes.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.