Perry (Carlos Osorio:AP)
Several delegates who will vote in the "Presidency 5" straw poll said they arrived planning to cast a vote for Perry on Thursday, but now they're having second thoughts.
"Everybody we talked to pulled away from Perry," said Beth Shields, a delegate from Brooksville, Fla., adding that some were transferring their support to Herman Cain.
As Byron York of the Washington Examiner noted, there is a possibility that Cain might benefit from Perry's loss of support. Cain staffers working the conference found themselves so swamped with a demand for Cain 2012 swag that they ran out of buttons, T-shirts and stickers within a few hours on Saturday morning. Before Cain volunteers received fresh supplies of Cain paraphernalia that afternoon, some had been handing out pins they unclipped and stickers they peeled off of their own clothes.
Delegates who spoke to The Ticket before the straw poll cited two primary reasons for switching their vote: Perry's trouble countering former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the debate and his comment that those who disagree with him on how Texas handles illegal immigration don't "have a heart." (Illegal immigrants in Texas can apply for in-state tuition at Texas public colleges and universities, a policy that Perry's rivals denounced in the debate.)
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said at the debate.
Although the policy approach does conflict with contemporary conservative views on the issue, some debate attendees stressed that their umbrage had more to do with Perry's response than his support for the policy.
"He's taking jabs at his own base," said Lisa Mathews, who came from Dallas, Texas to attend the debate. "Nobody likes to be told they don't have a heart."
Even those who were sympathetic to Perry on immigration took issue with his handling of the exchange.
"He fell flat," said Karin Hoffman, a delegate from Broward County, Fla. "He had this perfect opportunity but it was almost like the wind was totally knocked out of him."
Of course, Perry went into the debate with strong support among Florida Republicans, so there's always the chance that he'll go on to win the straw poll.
The Republican Party of Florida has organized four straw polls since 1979, and every winner has gone on to take the nomination.