Florida Republicans Express Concern, Anger About Rick Perry's 2012 Candidacy

ORLANDO - Ken Johnson came here to see Texas Gov. Rick Perry speak to Republican activists Saturday morning for one reason.

"It's a free breakfast," said Johnson, a 63-year old general contractor, as he ate scrambled eggs and sausage paid for by Perry's presidential campaign.

Johnson, who is on the Hillsborough Republican Party Executive Committee, said with conviction that he will never support Perry for one reason.

"I like a lot of what Rick Perry's positions are on many issues. Immigration is very high on my list, and I refuse to support Rick Perry because of his position on that issue," Johnson told The Huffington Post.

"I'm mad at Rick Perry right now for his refusal to see the light," he said.

April Schiff, a political consultant from Tampa who is also on the Hillsborough County Republican executive committee, was more analytical than Johnson, but was just as adamant that Perry's stanch refusal in a debate Thursday night to back down from his positions on illegal immigration had "lost [him] a lot of support."

Perry was, in her mind, no longer the Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination.

"Whether they can bring him back or not I don't know," Schiff said of Perry's campaign.

Perry spoke only briefly to the crowd of at least 1,000 after mingling with activists and voters for the better part of an hour. His 9-minute speech was a defense of his lackluster debate performance. Though he did not mention Mitt Romney's name, he attempted to persuade voters that just because the former Massachusetts governor has outclassed him at each of the last three debates doesn't mean Romney should be the nominee.

"You've seen what happens when our country chooses a leader who emphasizes words over deeds. We get a president like we have today," Perry said. "Americans don't need more slick promises. We need a principled leader who will stand on his conservative values."

However, the fact that Perry was spending time and energy acknowledging that he has faltered in the debates is a sign of the extent to which he is struggling.

Perry spent most of his speech criticizing President Obama, blaming him for the economy's travails and for continued high unemployment.

"One in six work-eligible Americans can't find a job. That is not an economic recovery, Mr. President. That is a disaster," Perry said.

He placed a lot of emphasis on the straw poll to be held later in the day, telling the crowd that he was thinking back to 2000, when he was lieutenant governor and his becoming governor depended on whether George W. Bush won in Florida and became president.

"And here we are 11 years later and I've got all my hopes on Florida again," he said, adding that candidates like Romney who were skipping the straw poll were making a "big mistake."

The audience responded warmly but was measured in its enthusiasm. There was a core of Perry supporters toward the front of the room that clearly is with him no matter what. Even among that group, however, there were signs that Perry's stumbles have unnerved them.

"I was concerned after the debate," said Debra Vinig, 57, a member of the Duval County GOP executive committee who's also a member of the First Coast Tea Party in Jacksonville. "But I've heard him speak twice since then, and I'm back on board."

Vinig's husband, Steve, said he had in fact been inclined to support Romney before this weekend but was now with Perry. Yet still, Debra Vinig said she she was only "leaning" toward Perry.

"Leaning" has been the operative word over the last few days for most Republican activists as they've described their view of the GOP primary. Certainly Romney does not spark excitement among the most conservative elements of the party. But concerns about Perry's candidacy have grown over the last few days, sparked in large part by Perry's debate performance. He doubled down on his position that children of illegal immigrants should receive in-state tuition in Texas, gave an incoherent answer on foreign policy for the second time in two debates, and stumbled badly over his words as he attempted to criticize Romney for flip-flopping.

Johnson, asked about Perry's comment that those who disagree with him on the immigration issue "don't have a heart," responded icily: "We don't need more arrogance from Texas."

His stance on immigration is just one of the issues hurting Perry; he is also getting hit by concerns over cronyism in Texas and by Romney's attacks on his Social Security comments.

Perry advisers tried to ignore questions about their candidate's troubles. When asked if the crowd in the ball room at an early hour was a sign that maybe talk of Perry's travails is overblown, his top strategist Dave Carney simply shook his head and walked away from reporters.

But it's clear that the main question about Perry now -- at the six-week mark of his campaign -- is whether he can survive the damage he has, in large part, inflicted on himself with a series of unforced errors.

"I came to this event leaning toward Mr. Perry. ... Now I don't have a leaning anymore," said Stepan Kira, a 63-year-old retired computer IT consultant from St. Augustine.

Bill Barnett, a 63-year-old retired aerospace engineer from Orlando, said he has found Perry's comments on Social Security "refreshing," because he agrees that the program needs to be reformed. But Barnett expressed concern that Perry may not be the Republican to run against Obama.

"We've got to make sure we don't pick a candidate that can't get the independents," Barnett said. "I'm ok with Rick Perry but I'm not the typical voter. I'm a pretty far right, Tea Party kind of guy. I'm not the guy I'm worried about."

"I do have a little worry -- not personally because I share his values and views -- but I do worry that some of his social values might be so far to the right that we lose that vote in the middle."