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“If anything, our faith in the power of ideas over candidates is stronger than ever, and we want to see candidates and elected leaders have the same faith in these ideas that we do,” Mrs. Frederick said.

Romney and the rest

Some say Mr. Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who has fresh momentum but can’t match Mr. Romney in money or organization firepower, can go the distance, but the prevailing view is that he represents another short-lived phenomenon in this cycle, with a string of candidates taking the role as Mr. Romney’s chief competition.

Santorum’s wins [Tuesday], while painful for Romney today, could actually help him in the long run,” pollster Tony Fabrizio said.

“If Santorum and Gingrich keep on passing the baton of the Romney ‘alternative’ back and forth, neither one is likely to build enough critical mass to mount a full frontal challenge to Romney,” Mr. Fabrizio said. “That [is an advantage for] Romney because of his organization, fundraising, cash on hand and remaining calendar.”

Mr. Fabrizio conducts the annual CPAC presidential preference straw poll sponsored by The Washington Times. The poll, to be released Saturday, could give a window into the depth of support on the right for the top contenders. In addition, The Times and Mr. Fabrizio this year will release a poll surveying conservative views nationally on the race and the key issues of the campaign.

Interviews with CPAC attendees this year reflect the same ambivalence GOP voters have shown in the primaries and caucuses to date.

Local tea party leader Steve Salvi, founder of Ohio Jobs & Justice PAC, is excited by Mr. Santorum, particularly because of his steady opposition to any form of amnesty for illegal immigrants.

“Watch Santorum,” Mr. Salvi said. “If not for Gingrich’s deep-pocket benefactors, this would have been a Romney-Santorum race for the past two months. Although the poll numbers don’t reflect it yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if Santorum moves up if he can financially stay in the race.”

Mr. Fabrizio remains skeptical. “I am sure Santorum is very popular with CPAC conservatives. So is Gingrich and probably Romney,” he said. “They can like all three and still not vote for two of them.”

“The question comes down to this for both Santorum and Gingrich: Who shows up? Are they activists that want so badly to beat Obama that they are willing to accept Romney as the most electable, or are they willing to fall on their swords for someone they perceive to be more conservative than Romney?”

Mrs. Frederick has another explanation. “When you see a backlash against a particular candidate, or resistance to pronouncements of who is up or who is down, it is because we are determined not to let others decide this race for us,” she said.

“Ninety percent of the nation hasn’t had the chance to actually vote in the presidential primary, and we’ll be fit to be tied if we let talking heads and establishment figures tell us the race is over when the vast majority of conservatives have not had an opportunity to even voice their opinion.”