By Jane Sutton and Steve Holland
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Former pizza executive Herman Cain surprised rival Rick Perry with an upset victory on Saturday in a nonbinding Republican presidential straw poll in Florida, dealing a disappointing loss to the Texas governor two days after a shaky debate performance.
Perry, leading in the polls for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, had needed a victory in the key test of strength in a crucial state to salve the wounds left over from a debate with his rivals on Thursday in which he struggled.
Instead, former Godfather's Pizza executive Cain, who is far behind the two top-tier candidates Perry and Mitt Romney, won with 37 percent of 2,657 votes cast.
Perry was a distant second at 15 percent, just ahead of Romney, who won 14 percent despite not participating in the poll. Further back were Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann.
Florida's straw poll is a nonbinding popularity poll and is significant only in terms of showing a candidate's strength in the state. The state contests to determine the Republican nominee do not start until early next year.
The Perry camp shrugged off the results.
"Cain won, we still have work to do," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. "It's his day. The conservative message won today. We've been in this race for five weeks. We're going to continue campaigning hard."
Miner put the focus on Romney's third-place finish, saying he has been running for president for years and is still not breaking through.
"It's more of what happened to Mitt Romney. He's not going to be crowned president of the United States. He's going to have to work for it. And after five and a half years he once again got rejected in a key state in the Republican primary process," Miner said.
Perry created doubts among some conservatives at a debate with his Republican rivals on Thursday that he admitted on Friday was not his best performance.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Bachmann chose not to compete in the straw poll but since they took part in the debate and spoke earlier to delegates at the convention in Orlando, the Florida Republican Party put their names on the ballot.
(Editing by Will Dunham)