Herman Cain gets treated as an also-ran in most coverage of the Republican presidential primary field. He's a part of the peloton, well back of the presumed front-running rivals, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

Not this weekend, and not among conservatives in Orlando.

Cain, the former head of the Godfather's Pizza chain and the seeming winner of the most laugh lines at Thursday's presidential debate, stormed to victory in the Florida straw poll on Saturday, taking 37 percent of the vote to Perry's 15 percent.

It was a "major upset," said USA Today, and further sign of the weakening support for Perry among conservatives who want an alternative to Romney.

That Cain's big victory is primarily seen as a symptom of Perry's campaign woes is not going to please the die-hards who feel that Cain and other conservatives have been ignored by the media.

But the two front-runners are ignoring them, too. The New York Times reports that the Perry and Romney campaigns are hard at work compiling dossiers on each other's records. In Perry's telling, Romney will be what his 2008 rivals – and Democrats – alleged: an inveterate waffler and flip-flopper. And Perry, according to Romney, is a rank amateur, unready to assume command of foreign policy and insufficiently tough on illegal immigration.

 

The lines of argument are hardening as the party’s leading presidential candidates dig in for what Republicans believe could be a long and bitter fight for the nomination, extending into the spring as new rules allow contenders to pick up delegates even in states where they lose.

After three debates that have shaped the race into a Perry-Romney contest, even while highlighting the imperfections and political vulnerabilities of both men, the campaign is now entering a new phase. The candidates have a week to make their pitch to donors before the third quarter closes on Sept. 30, a critical point that could further narrow the field.

But, The Times goes on to note, those imperfections are not insignificant. They are a large part of this weekend's latest outbreak of Christie Fever.