Nightly News | September 24, 2011
HOLT: Good evening.
LESTER HOLT, anchor: We start here with a big upset tonight in a critical test of strength among the Republican presidential challengers. No candidate came into today's Florida Republican straw poll with more riding on the outcome than front-runner Texas Governor Rick Perry . But instead, it was a man who so far has had little attention in this race who took the top prize. NBC 's Mike Viqueira joins us from the White House with the surprising results. Mike , good evening.
MIKE VIQUEIRA reporting: Yeah, Lester . No one saw this coming. Businessman Wherein Cain , he'd been pulling well behind the front-runners in fifth or sixth place, in single digits at 5 or 6 percent. Well, late today he crushed the competition in the Florida straw poll . With more riding on the result than any other candidate, today Rick Perry made one last appeal to straw poll voters in Florida .
Governor RICK PERRY: What Americans are looking for isn't the slickest candidate. They're looking for an authentic, principled leader.
VIQUEIRA: Today's poll was open only to party activists who, in a stunning upset, chose former pizza company executive Herman Cain , who won by a whopping 22 percent.
Mr. HERMAN CAIN: Send Washington a message.
VIQUEIRA: Before the straw poll , Perry had been damaged by hits from conservative rivals, most recently in a debate on Fox News Channel on allowing in-state tuition rates at Texas colleges for the children of illegal immigrants.
Representative MICHELLE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): I would not allow taxpayer-funded benefits for illegals aliens or for their children.
VIQUEIRA: A victory today was considered crucial for Perry 's chances.
Mr. PAT BUCHANAN (MSNBC Political Analyst): If Governor Perry should lose down there in Florida , I think it would be a real problem for him.
VIQUEIRA: Perry 's chief rival, Mitt Romney , did not campaign at the straw poll , instead going to his birthplace, Michigan .
Former Governor MITT ROMNEY: Nice to meet you, John . I bet you remember my dad, don't you?
JOHN: I do.
VIQUEIRA: In the wake of today's surprise, analysts say Romney is now the clear front-runner.
Ms. A.B. STODDARD (The Hill Associate Editor): It's not open to your average political junkie. It means they took a second look at Rick Perry and decided that he's not up to this.
VIQUEIRA: A wild card in the race, more Washington dysfunction. Even as disaster victims still struggle to recover, the agency that aids them, FEMA , is now caught in a partisan funding fight. Unless Congress can agree, funds run out at midweek, with a larger government-wide shutdown looming Friday. Analysts say the gridlock could hurt Republicans next year.
Ms. STODDARD: This becomes a challenge to the Republican Party once it has a nominee. Will it be a party that can still win the middle, take independent voters away from President Obama , keep the majority in the Congress , and also win the White House in the fall of 2012 ?
VIQUEIRA: And, Lester , as we said, Cain didn't just win, he rolled over everyone. He beat his nearest competitor by 22 points. He had 37, Rick Perry had about 15 percent, Mitt Romney was one behind that at 14 percent. It's a real head-scratcher. One interpretation we're already getting, Lester , is this demonstrates the desire on the part of the GOP electorate for another candidate, a third candidate besides Perry and Romney to get in this race. We also understand that Herman Cain was the lone candidate to spend all week courting those delegates down in Orlando . Lester :
HOLT: Mike Viqueira , thanks.