Paul takes CPAC straw poll gold; Walker surges to second place
© Greg Nash

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales MORE (R-Ky.) won his third consecutive straw poll victory at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday. 

But it was Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) who surged the most, coming in a close second with 21.4 percent behind Paul's 25.7 percent among the field of 17 potential GOP contenders. 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOcasio-Cortez and Cruz's dialogue shows common ground isn't just for moderates Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists MORE (R-Texas) took third with 11.5 percent, followed by Dr. Ben Carson at 11.4 percent, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 8.3 percent. All of the other candidates pulled less than 5 percent. 

The annual straw poll at the CPAC conference is hardly scientific, measuring hardcore activists and attendees. It has typically not been predicatave of the eventual nominee, especially so early out, but it does signal who is rising and who is dropping with the conservative base. 

Paul, long the favorite of the libertarian-leaning event, thrilled conservatives on Thursday with a sermon-style speech on small-government and liberty.

“It’s time for a new president,” Paul declared, eliciting chants of “President Paul!” from the conference goers.

That chant erupted again inside the Potomac Ballroom at the Gaylord National Convention Center when news broke that Paul had won the straw poll for the third consecutive year.

"I am humbled by the enthusiastic support and encouragement I received this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference,” Paul said in a statement. “Our party is filled with constitutional conservatives who have chosen to stand with me for a third consecutive straw poll victory…I plan on doing my part and I hope you will join me as I continue to make the GOP a bigger, better and bolder party."

The Kentucky senator is the perennial favorite at the grassroots conference, and he was well represented once again by young voters who traveled in from across the country to show support and an organization effort by his team. 

More than 3,007 conference-goers voted in the poll.

Paul excels with young voters open to his libertarian-leaning message, and they dominated the poll. Forty-two percent of voters were students, and 47 percent were between the ages of 18 to 25.

But Walker’s showing may have been the most impressive. He has made has made huge gains on the field of potential contenders. 

Last year, Walker finished sixth, taking only 7 percent support. His second place finish in 2015 came without an organized effort to push him to the top of the poll, and it cements his standing as a top GOP contender that appeals to establishment-minded Republicans and the base.

The poll also indicates that Cruz and Carson have durable support among grassroots voters. Both Republicans have openings to catch fire among base voters in early voting states.

Bush didn’t finish near the top, but he put in an admirable showing in what was hostile territory for him. 

Bush has the burden of convincing conservatives that he appeals to more than just the GOP establishment, and he stood his ground on Friday in front of a rowdy crowd that seemed primed to turn on him for any missteps.

Still, critics will note that Bush, who didn’t appear on the ballot last year, made a big push to turn out supporters at the conference. His team bussed in hundreds of supporters from Washington and paid for their costly entrance tickets to make sure he had friendly faces in the crowd and a decent showing in the poll.

The rest of the field will find little reason for optimism in the poll.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report — Uproar after Trump's defense of foreign dirt on candidates MORE (Fla.) came in seventh, taking only 3.7 percent support. His star has fallen dramatically since 2013, when he came in second, barely losing to Paul, 25 percent to 23 percent.

Rubio’s push for immigration reform has damaged him badly with the base. Rubio admitted in his CPAC address on Friday that that he's learned he was wrong on his approach to immigration reform.

The shine is also off New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was once a Republican star and leading presidential contender. Christie finished 10th with only 2.8 percent support, behind real estate mogul Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump defends Stephanopolous interview Trump defends Stephanopolous interview Buttigieg on offers of foreign intel: 'Just call the FBI' MORE and former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina.

Christie sought to appeal to the base at CPAC by framing Bush as the establishment GOP presidential contender and himself as the grassroots candidate, but the message didn’t take.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is also no longer the force he once was, finishing behind Christie at an even worse 1.1 percent. He seemed to get an enthusiastic response from convention-goers, but has never fully recovered from a brief and gaffe-prone run for president in 2012.

One potential candidate who is buried in the straw poll has the potential to break out. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee got only .3 percent support, but he’s on a book tour and didn’t attend the conference.

GOP strategists believe he still has a huge base of support among conservatives.

This post was updated at 6:20 p.m.