ORLANDO, Fla. — Michele Bachmann’s latest campaign rallying cry is a simple one — President Barack Obama is so unpopular that any Republican candidate can beat him in 2012, so Republicans should choose a bona fide conservative like her to challenge him.
Florida conservative activists got their share of that message this weekend, and they responded by handing Bachmann a last place finish in Saturday’s Florida GOP presidential straw poll.
The survey of Florida conservatives is the first major straw poll of the Republican field since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race and Bachmann’s victory in the Iowa Straw Poll. Perry put a lot of stock in the contest, and came in second with 15.4 percent of the vote — everyone lost to pizza magnate Herman Cain, who won with 37.1 percent of the 2,657 votes cast. Bachmann came in eighth of eight, with 1.5 percent of the vote (full results can be found here).
Bachmann wasn’t actively competing in the contest, but she spoke twice and participated in a nationally televised presidential debate during this weekend’s gathering of Florida conservatives in Orlando. Activists at the event almost universally praised Bachmann for her conservative chops, but few were willing to throw their support behind the Minnesota congresswoman’s fast-fading presidential bid.
“We’ve been supporting her for a long time; we like Michele,” Floridian Bud Harter said as he waited in line to vote for Newt Gingrich in the straw poll. Harter questioned her ability to win a general election contest, mostly because he doubted the country is ready for a woman president.
The electability issue drove others to support Mitt Romney, who took third place in the straw poll despite, like Bachmann, no active participation in the event.
Jan Glassman, who splits her time between Florida and New Hampshire, said she was impressed by Romney’s experience and “even-keel” approach to the campaign trail. As for Bachmann, Glassman said she’s happy Bachmann decided to run, but she’d prefer to see someone else be the Republican standard-bearer in the 2012 race.
“I think she’s doing a great job as a congresswoman,” Glassman said.
Of course, Bachmann had supporters at the event. One of her most ardent fans was Chad Lincoln, a Broward Country committeeman who came to know Bachmann from a YouTube video of one of her House floor speeches. Since then, he’s been a big donor for the campaign.
“I think she is the best possible option for president of the United States,” Lincoln said. “She’s aces.”
One problem: Lincoln said Bachmann has no ground game in Florida. During a conference call with donors on Tuesday, Lincoln said Bachmann never referenced the Florida straw poll. Outside of her short Florida swing in August, Bachmann’s presence has been missing from the state.
At this point, Bachmann is focused almost exclusively on Iowa, where the campaign first found heaps of support during the August Iowa straw poll.
“Iowa is a priority. If Perry loses Iowa, loses New Hampshire, loses South Carolina, he’s out,” Bachmann’s interim campaign manager Keith Nahigian said Thursday night. “You have to win Iowa. If you’re flying around the country doing stuff and you’re not focusing on where the train starts, you’re out.”
Florida conservatives warned not to ignore their state, which is setting itself up to be the fifth state to vote in the nominating process next February, and the first with a large number of delegates in play.
The Tea Party has emerged as a major voting bloc among Florida Republicans, Lincoln said, having driven the party to victory in recent races for governor, attorney general, CFO and agriculture commissioner. He said grassroots activists will eventually choose their candidate and work to broaden that person’s appeal beyond the base to independents and disenchanted Democrats.
“This party is going to fall behind a candidate,” he said. “There’s work to be done.”
Glassman said those grassroots efforts coupled with the kind of personal interaction New Hampshire voters have had with candidates will help best compel Florida voters toward a candidate.
“People are going to have a lot more confidence in somebody talking to them instead of the talking heads” of the media, she said.
Standing with his son handing out Mitt Romney stickers, a man who gave his name only as Eric said Florida’s demographics make it a good barometer of how a candidate will play in other areas of the state.
“Florida is so demographically, economically and geographically diverse that … if you can win in Florida, you can win across the United States,” he said.
Richard Boyman, who attended the weekend’s events with his wife and another couple, gave an indication of what’s at the front of many Republican primary voters’ minds.
“We’re not looking for perfection,” he said. “We’re looking for victory.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com.