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John Raoux, Associated Press
Delegates cheer during a speech by Republican presidential candidate, businessman Herman Cain, before a straw poll during a Florida Republican Party Presidency 5 Convention Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011, in Orlando, Fla.

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.

"Let's send Washington a message: We the people are still in charge of this country. Not we, the bureaucrats. Not we, the government," Georgia businessman Herman Cain told the conference.

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said delegates should stand with "someone who can win the election, someone who is a consistent, authentic conservative ... who has proved they can win in states that we have to win."

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he was the one who could best take on Obama.

Perry, a late entrant into the Republican primary who quickly led national polls, stumbled in recent weeks.

His 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 victory could prove helpful, especially ahead of Friday's deadline for the latest fundraising snapshot.

"I think you have to take seriously whatever the results are," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said.

Perry left Florida to speak to GOP activists at a gathering on Mackinac Island in Michigan. Romney, the son of a former Michigan governor, also was attending that event.