CPAC: After a tough week, Romney wins conservative straw poll

Mitt Romney won the CPAC straw poll of conservative activists Saturday. It doesn't bring him any convention delegates, but it does show good standing among the Republican Party base.

Jim Bourg/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney arrives to address the American Conservative Union's annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington February 10, 2012.

After his shellacking in three presidential nominating contests this week, Mitt Romney Saturday won something that put a little more spring in his step – the CPAC straw poll.

Among 3,408 participants in the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll, 38 percent voted for Romney, 31 percent for Rick Santorum, 15 percent for Ron Paul, and 12 percent for Newt Gingrich.

In the Washington Times/CPAC Presidential Straw Poll of self-identified conservatives around the country, the results were much closer: 27 percent for Romney, 25 percent for Santorum, 20 percent for Gingrich, and 8 percent for Paul.

CPAC represents the more-conservative base of the Republican Party. Significantly, 44 percent of straw poll voters at the CPAC gathering Saturday were students. That demographic might have benefited Rep. Paul, who won the poll the last two years and who has a strong following of young enthusiasts. But he bypassed the conference to campaign in Maine, where the nonbinding caucus results were to be announced this weekend.

Romney won with the highest percentage since 2000, when George W. Bush got 42 percent of the vote. Also to his apparent benefit, Romney won at a time when the activists voting said that the candidates’ position on conservative issues – not the “electability” favored by mainstream Republicans – held the most importance for them.

“Romney’s win in both polls signals he can compete on the conservative ground that the other three candidates claim to have locked up,” reported the conservative Washington Times, cosponsor of the poll.

The CPAC straw poll generates no convention delegates, and it represents a tiny slice of likely voters. But it does carry symbolic value – especially, perhaps, for Romney as he tries to keep his status as front-runner.

“In some ways, the outcome is most helpful for Romney because of the story that won't get written,” writes Alexander Burns at Politico.

“If Santorum had won the straw poll, it would have generated a thousand Sunday wrap-up pieces reiterating that Romney has problems with the GOP base,” Burns wrote. “And it gives the former Massachusetts governor a data point he can highlight as he battles questions about his appeal on the right, going forward. On the other hand, the results tend to confirm that we've got a Romney-Santorum race on our hands, so on that count it doesn't shake up the prevailing sense of where things stand.”

Among CPAC poll participants, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was the leading choice to be the Republican candidate for vice president, winning 34 percent of the votes, followed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and US Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

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