But when Herman Cain finished, they roared.
The former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza has hit his rhetorical stride in the Republican presidential contest, whipping up crowds of true-believers everywhere he goes.
And he was rewarded on Saturday with a decisive win in the straw poll of activists conducted by the Republican Party in Florida. With nearly 40 percent of the vote, he easily defeated the front runners, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney — and everyone else.
“Just because somebody has never held high public office, some people are spreading the nasty rumor that Herman Cain can’t win,” the pizza magnate told the crowd. “Well, let me tell you what, that may be what they think, but the American people have a different idea.”
Mr. Cain’s victory in the Florida straw poll was a particular blow to Mr. Perry, whose campaign had worked hard to win the nonbinding contest as a way of shaking off another poor debate performance on Thursday night.
But the results might also be a signal that the national polls, which show Mr. Cain lagging badly, may not reflect an important sentiment among Republicans who are likely to vote in the early states.
Mr. Cain’s appeal — straight talking businessman bluntness combined with a preacher-like style — could be very attractive in Iowa once voters really focus on the candidates. A similar thing happened with Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, in 2007.
One key to Mr. Cain’s success may also be his “9-9-9″ plan to revamp the country’s tax code. It would replace the current system of taxes with a 9 percent tax on personal income, sales and business income.
The experts have snickered, but the faithful love it. At his speech on Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida, they chanted it with him as he said the numbers: “Nine. Nine. Nine.”
The plan taps into a part of the Republican Party that has longed for a new system of taxes. In 2007, some candidates backed the “fair tax,” which would impose a flat, consumption tax on sales.
Mr. Cain is also helped by a compelling personal story: His pizza chain is hugely successful and he battled back from stage four cancer in recent years, a story that he uses to describe how faith helped him survive the ordeal.
Mr. Cain’s presidential bid was rocky at the beginning. He was confronted by statements he made that suggested he would not appoint Muslims to his cabinet if he were elected president.
But he continued to campaign, giving speeches in Iowa and elsewhere, often without the glare of the television cameras. Like Mr. Huckabee, it was the debates where he has really shined.
His broad smile and sharp wit have given him some of the more memorable moments during the debates. And his laser-like focus on bringing a businessman’s approach to the White House seems to fit the times.
“When you cast a ballot at this straw poll, send Washington a message: they’re ready for a problem solver, not another politician,” Mr. Cain said Friday. “They’re ready for solutions, not more speeches.”
The challenge, of course, is to be more than just a flash-in-the-pan.
The electoral landscape is littered with presidential hopefuls who have surged to victory in Iowa or New Hampshire only to have faltered soon after because of a lack of money and a lack of political infrastructure to carry them.
Mr. Cain appears to have neither money nor infrastructure, and that would be a serious problem, even if he should win Iowa. A victory in that state would be a blow to Mr. Perry and Michele Bachmann, who are both competing hard there. But Mr. Cain would have to find a way to go further if he wants to win the presidency.
For now, though, Mr. Cain’s supporters are happy to see their candidate getting a little attention.
As he finished his speech Friday to an extended standing ovation, Mr. Cain pleaded for their help in winning the White House next year.
“Help me to put the ‘united’ back in the United States of America,” he said.