Texas Gov. Rick Perry addresses the Republican Leadership Conference at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich. (Carlos Osorio / Associated Press / September 23, 2011)

By Paul West
September 24, 2011, 6:06 p.m.

Reporting from Tampa, Fla. — A threatening cloud hung low over the Orange County Convention Center on Saturday evening as top members of Gov. Rick Perry’s brain trust left a place their candidate would love to forget.

Perry had just capped a shaky showing in a debate there Thursday evening with a stinging straw vote defeat at the hands of the Hermanator, longshot Herman Cain, who outpolled the GOP presidential front-runner by better than two-to-one.

The Texans’ chins were up, but their public reaction to the initial setback of their man’s six-week-old campaign didn’t pass the straight-face test: they claimed it was actually a setback for Mitt Romney.

Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner, whose candidate led Romney by 9 percentage points in a statewide poll in Florida released just two days earlier, told reporters the straw vote “must be a devastating loss” for Romney and “a morale buster for his campaign in a state like Florida.”

Huh?

The former Massachusetts governor, argued Perry’s men, has been running for more than five years, and all he could manage was a measly 14 percent. (Barely one point less than Perry).

True, Romney’s campaign had reached out to convention delegates, quietly seeking their support in emails and other contacts. But Romney’s efforts at the Florida GOP convention weren’t in the same league as Perry’s. Romney also announced publicly that he wasn’t competing in the straw vote, which meant he didn’t appear in person or send a surrogate to deliver a pitch to the delegates in the hours leading up to the balloting.

All the other candidates, save Michele Bachmann, who finished dead last, were represented. They either spoke or sent a representative. Some, like Perry, both sent a representative and showed a slick video on the giant TV screens hung throughout the basement of the convention center, where the 5,000 chairs were mostly filled. (Perry also had campaign commercials, including a bio spot that played around the clock on the TV sets in delegates’ hotel rooms.)

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