ORLANDO — Herman Cain’s stunning upset victory in the Florida Straw Poll vote has left more than a few political observers scratching their heads, wondering where the GOP presidential race is headed now that a candidate written off just a few weeks ago has staged a dramatic comeback.
“It’s stunning,” said political commentator Doug Guetzloe, the chairman of Ax the Tax and the host of The Guetzloe Report on the Phoenix Network in downtown Orlando.
“It’s unbelievable — I don’t know how else to put it,” Guetzloe said. “I’ve never seen anything quite as dramatic as that.”
Florida Republicans gave Cain not just a victory, but a massive one. The Georgia businessman, who has never held public office, won 37.1 percent of the vote. That put him comfortably ahead of the two men considered the real front runners in the race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who got 15.4 percent, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who lagged behind with 14 percent.
No one else came close to the top three, and rounding out the list was former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (10.9 percent), Texas Congressman Ron Paul (10.4 percent), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (8.4 percent), former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (2.3 percent), and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann at 1.5 percent.
Guetzloe, who participated in the first straw poll vote held in Florida since 1995, said no one would have predicted Cain’s surging victory on Saturday morning.
“You don’t go from 2-4 percent in the polls to 37 percent,” he said. “It’s unprecedented. An African American businessman beat both Romney and Perry. It was literally unprecedented in Republican politics.”
Guetzloe said Cain may have had two advantages. On Friday, he spoke to Republican audiences in Orlando at the CPAC Florida convention, held at the Orlando Convention Center, and gave what Guetzloe said was a dynamic speech.
“He basically pulled it off because of his speech at CPAC,” Guetzloe said. “It was an electrifying faith and freedom rally.”
Cain may also have benefitted — as Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, did in 2010 — by being a businessman outsider, Guetzloe said, free of the taint of having been involved in a government that appears unable to steer the sagging U.S. and Florida economy back into shape.
In 2010, Scott, a businessman in the field of health care, spent millions of his own money to come from nowhere to defeat the state’s attorney general and former congressman, Bill McCollum, in the Republican gubernatorial primary. McCollum was the favorite of the GOP party insiders.
Likewise, Guetzloe said, Florida Republicans may still be in the mood for a candidate who isn’t in government now.
“This is definitely politics not as usual in the Sunshine State,” Guetzloe said. “2012 will be even more turbulent. Voters are fed up not just with Democratic and Republican politics, but with politics as usual. Cain is as outside as you get.”
This victory also has very ominous implications for the front runner status of Perry and Romney, he predicted.
“Both of those campaigns spent millions to win this,” Guetzloe said. “Twenty percent of the delegates were chosen by party bosses. It’s a big loss for Perry and a huge loss for Romney.”
Romney, who spent years in the private sector running Bain Capital before becoming the president and CEO of Salt Lake City Olympic Games Organizing Committee, was governor of Massachusetts for four years, from 2003 to 2007. That was his only experience holding elected office, and Romney has tried to make the claim that he, too, is mainly a political outsider with the bulk of his experience in the private sector.
But Guetzloe said voters are simply not buying it.
“He’s an insider,” Guetzloe said. “He is an eastern establishment Republican. He is from wealth. He is not a guy you can pull up a chair and have a beer with.”
And Romney and Perry — who was first elected to public office in 1984, when he won a seat in the Texas Legislature as a Democrat, and later become a Republican and then the state’s lieutenant governor and governor — are not giving Florida voters the outsider status they crave in these rocky economy times, when so many have lost faith in the ability of government to help them, Guetzloe said.
“Republicans are starved for an outsider,” Guetzloe predicted.
Freeline Media commentator Dexter Miller, a Republican and self-employed businessman in Orlando, agreed.
“They want an outsider, a real outsider,” he said of GOP primary voters. “Cain is a real outsider, more so than Romney. He was only the governor of Massachusetts for four years, but people do see him as being more inside than they ever did Herman Cain.”
The problem, Miller said, is that Cain is probably too inexperienced to succcessfully defeat a very weak sitting president.
If Cain did get the GOP presidential nomination, “I believe it would ensure Obama’s second term,” Miller said.
John DiDonna, a theater director and professor at Rollins College and Barry University, dismissed the results of the Straw Poll, saying it shows only one thing: the GOP field doesn’t have a genuine front runner yet.
“It shows you how divisive and divided the electorate is right now,” said DiDonna, a longtime Republican who recently became an independent. “It’s just ridiculous and foolish. People put too much faith in these straw poll results. It is surprising? No. Cain is a smart man. But people are so divided. Honestly, I don’t think we have a front runner yet. They haven’t shown their face yet. Even on the other side, some Democrats are saying ‘We need to get someone to run against Obama.’ It shows you how divided everyone is.”
DiDonna noted that Obama may be the most vulnerable incumbent president in decades because of the continued weak state of the economy and the Obama administration’s inability to turn that around. That makes the GOP nomination seem like the ticket to the presidency — except that the nominees may end up alienating voters by the time 2012 arrives, DiDonna predicted.
“It is a very valuable nomination, but they’re squandering it,” he said. “This is the time to put a person of intelligence and unity in the White House, and no one seems interested in doing that. There is somebody in the race who is suited to that in many ways, and that is Jon Huntsman, but he’s being too tentative. Voters want anger, and they want emotion, instead.”
Cain could benefit further by appealing to Tea Party conservatives, said John Long, chairman of the Florida Tea Party.
“Cain won by an unprecedented margin, finished far ahead of the number two and three candidates, combined and brought remarkable energy and competition to the Florida Straw Poll,” Long said. “It is important to note that in the previous presidency Florida straw polls, the winner has gone on to win the Florida primary, and become the GOP nominee.”
In that respect, Long said, Florida voters may end up deciding the nomination, or at least playing a crucial role in selecting the party’s candidate.
“As an example of grace, and professionalism, Mr. Cain waited for the results, and then walked the concourse of the Orange County Convention Center, thanking attendees for their support, before departing,” Long said. “Supporters and well-wishers lined the hallways to congratulate the Georgia businessman for his historic victory. The Herman Cain train is picking up steam.”
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