In one of the opening skirmishes in the long – and almost certainly bloody – GOP battle for the 2012 nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the annual Conservative Political Action Convention straw poll Saturday.
While hardly a scientific poll, the CPAC straw vote offers early insight into conservatives’ thinking as Republicans find themselves shut out of power in the White House and Congress for the first time in 16 years. And Romney's victory will give some credence to growing sentiment that he has quietly put himself in strong position for the 2012 contest after losing to John McCain last year.
Romney took 20 percent of the vote, followed by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal with 14 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 13 percent, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin with 13 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 10 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee with 7 percent. Others on the ballot included South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Nine percent were undecided.
With no unifying Republican figure to rally around after the desultory 2008 elections, the straw poll results reflect tensions among conservatives about how best to oppose the Obama Administration’s agenda – through openly wishing for failure, a sentiment voiced recently by talk show host Rush Limbaugh, or working with the new president at a time when the American public seek a larger role for government amid the deepening recession.
Neither Palin or Jindal were in attendance at the CPAC conference, which likely had an impact on their showings.
CPAC organizers suggested the straw poll also aimed to gauge conservatives’ views on issue positions Republicans should adopt in the coming years. The straw poll gathered participants’ views on matters like the wisdom of “establishing direct U.S. dialogue with countries like Iran and groups like Hamas.”
Still, attendees very much had 2012 on their minds.
Matt Lewis, a conservative writer for AOL’s “Political Machine” said he wanted to back Gingrich, but doesn’t think the former speaker will actually run in 2012. So he went for Palin instead.
“Whether it’s Jindal, Romney or Palin, there are quality conservative candidates that I would be excited to support,” Lewis said. “At this moment, she’s as close as we get to a frontrunner and national leader.”
“I think she’s a solid conservative. I was a huge supporter of her during the presidential campaign. I think she’s the fresh face that offers change, but conservative change,” Lewis said. “I also think she learned a lot of lessons on the campaign trail last time. I know some people think she might not have preformed as well as she might have, but that’s part of her education.”
CPAC balloting is only a crude barometer of Republican sentiment three years ahead of the next GOP presidential primary scrum. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney claimed the mantle the last two years, but foundered in his presidential bid. In fact he used his 2008 CPAC speech to drop out of the race even as he edged out eventual GOP nominee John McCain. And the 2006 winner was then-Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen, who took 22 percent of the votes cast. Allen was defeated by Democrat Jim Webb that November and has since largely disappeared from the political scene.
Rank-and-file conservatives attending the convention suggested the 2012 race is still wide open. Ernie Simmons, owner of Diener Consultants, in Lancaster, Pa., said he voted for Jindal, though he liked the other candidates. He said the Louisiana governor would best protect gun rights, one of the main focuses of his marketing firm.
“I like Palin, but I don’t know how she could possibly survive” a one-on-one race against Obama. “I like Huckabee a lot. But he might be too soft to win. Jindal’s the future.”
Jenna Robinson, a graduate student in North Carolina, who works at the Raleigh-based John William Pope Center for Higher Education, said she voted for Ron Paul. The libertarian-leaning lawmaker has been proven right about the nation’s precarious financial situation, she said.
“I feel like he’s the candidate most likely to stick to his convictions on individual liberty.”