ORLANDO, Fla. — If Florida Gov. Rick Scott is right, then Herman Cain will be the next president of the United States.
Scott boldly predicted Saturday before votes were counted that the winner of the Republican Party of Florida straw poll would win that state's primary, the primary winner would be the party's nominee and that nominee would beat President Barack Obama in November 2012.
Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza chief executive from Georgia, pulled an upset in the test vote, capturing the support of 986 delegates, more than double the 410 votes for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the closest runner up. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was a close third with 372 votes, followed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
"He can win. He can beat Obama," said Cynthia Henderson, president of the Tallahassee Republican Women's Club Federated, who cast her vote for Cain. "Now he has the motivation to raise money. He went toe to toe with everybody and made a difference. It will have to help him. It's fun."
Cain fired up Republican activists at all his stops during the three days of events. An enormous roar went up when Scott announced the results
Perry was considered the favorite among Republican insiders when the events began Thursday, but his poor performance in a debate that night started a buzz that he might lose. That, combined with tremendous applause for Cain at candidate forums on Thursday and Friday, got some people talking about an upset.
Scott repeatedly said the straw poll would propel a candidate to the nomination.
"I wouldn't disagree with him," Cain said Thursday evening. "But I don't think it's make or break. I think you cannot win the straw poll and you can still win the nomination, but if you win the straw poll, it's a tremendous boost of momentum to your particular campaign."
And, he said, the event is a big deal.
"Winning the straw poll is important and I think it is very, very significant," he said.
On Saturday, Cain was one of three candidates who stayed to talk with delegates. Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were the others. Perry, though, held a breakfast for delegates that morning, where he stressed the importance of the straw poll.
The three previous presidential straw polls organized by the party were won by the eventual nominee: Ronald Reagan in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1987 and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole in 1995.
"It's a big deal. It's going to set, at least for the next couple of weeks, the momentum factor," Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said before the event. "This is Florida. This is 18 million people. You play well in Florida, you're a bellwether for America."
Cain repeatedly received standing ovations and loud applause from the delegates.
"They want us to believe that we can't do this, but I believe that we can," he said to cheers.
Patti Green of Lake Mary said she likes Cain because he is a businessman.
"I like all his stances and I like his fire," Green said of Cain, whom she voted for.
Though Perry said the event was important, his campaign played down the results.
"He's the commander in chief, not the debater in chief," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. "Debates are part of the process, but we're taking our message right to the people. Mitt Romney has been doing debates and running for president for five and a half years and he comes in third, it must be a devastating loss for him."
Perry's campaign more actively reached out to delegates. Romney chose not to participate in Saturday's event, though he addressed attendees at events Thursday and Friday.