Romney wins straw poll of conservative activists at CPAC, Santorum take second

Mitt Romney took first place in a straw poll of conservative activists conducted at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), besting rival Rick Santorum by 7 points.

Romney took 38 percent of the 3,408 participants in the straw poll, conducted by the Washington Times and CPAC over three days. Santorum came in second with 31 percent, followed by Newt Gingrich with 15 percent and Ron Paul with 12 percent.

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The vote of confidence from the gathering of die-hard conservative activists is a major boost to Romney as he works to convince voters he is a bona fide conservative. Romney's win comes less than a week after Santorum defeated him in primary contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.

Santorum and Romney had the most visible support throughout the conference, with activists displaying their signs and stickers as they mingled in the halls. Both of their addresses to the conference had activists in lines snaking back and forth through the hotel attempting to get in, but many fewer showed up to hear Gingrich.

Paul's last-place finish held the most striking contrast from previous years. The Texas congressman won the CPAC straw poll in both of the past two years. But he did not speak at the conference in 2012 and had almost no presence on the ground. The crowd at one session even applauded Democratic strategist Paul Begala when he said that Paul had authored racist newsletters.

Romney, who typically does not perform well in straw polls and has dismissed their veracity in the past, wrote on Twitter that he was honored to have won the CPAC poll.

"I’m heartened that so many friends here agree with me about the need for conservative change," he said.

But 44 percent of those who voted were students, a figure reflective of the largely college-age population that attended the conference. The overrepresentation of students in the sample compared to the voting population as a whole was a cause for caution against reading too much into the poll.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) topped the list of who straw-poll voters said they would like to see as vice president, followed by Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) and Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-Va.).

American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, whose group puts on CPAC every year, told reporters that the poll was conducted electronically, with activists voting on laptops or smartphones via a secure online portal.

In conjunction with the straw poll at CPAC, the ACU released the results of a national telephone survey of 600 self-identified conservative voters. Romney won that poll by a smaller margin, beating Santorum by just two points. Gingrich came in third in that poll with 20 percent and Paul again placed last with 8 percent.

- This post was updated at 6:44 p.m.