By PHILIP ELLIOTT, ASSOCIATED PRESS
(AP) ORLANDO, Fla. -- Working to shake the perception of a stumbling campaign, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told GOP activists Saturday that his 2012 presidential rivals made a mistake by skipping an early test vote that he hopes will calm jitters about his bid.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota both left Florida before the voting began and their campaigns discounted the straw poll's role in the campaign.
Other first-tier candidates hadn't actively organized for the Florida vote, either. So the results, expected in the evening, probably won't shuffle the campaign's standings and were shaping up as little more than a popularity contest among the delegates selected by local party organizations.
Ahead of the test vote, Perry's campaign bought breakfast for hundreds of the party faithful assembled for a three-day conference and debate. Perry said skipping the straw poll was a blunder.
"I think that's a big mistake. I think it's very important," Perry said, citing its history.
Previous straw polls have predicted the GOP nominee.
Ronald Reagan won in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1987 and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole in 1995. The Republican Party of Florida, however, has not organized the test vote in recent years.
Perry, a late entrant into the Republican primary who quickly led national polls, stumbled in recent weeks.
His strident defense of in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants put him on the wrong side of the GOP's conservative base. His rivals worked to exploit his opposition to a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border and his support of a mandatory vaccine for girls against a sexually transmitted disease.
A Florida poll victory could prove helpful, especially ahead of Friday's deadline for the latest fundraising snapshot.
From Florida, Perry was headed later Saturday to a Republican gathering on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Romney, the son of a former Michigan governor, also was set to address the crowd in the state where he spent his youth.