Sen. Rand Paul won the 2013 Washington Times-CPAC presidential preference straw poll this past weekend with Sen. Marco Rubio coming in a close second, easily outdistancing the rest of the field and signaling the rise of a new generation of conservative leaders.
Mr. Paul won 25 percent of the vote and Mr. Rubio collected 23 percent at the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering that takes the temperature of conservative grass-roots leaders.
Both Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul were elected to the Senate in the 2010 tea party wave that served as a rebuke both to President Obama and to the legacy of President George W. Bush, and this past weekend's results suggest a conservative movement trying to move past the last decade's fights.
The results also captured the youthful and libertarian bent of the CPAC audience, where more than half of attendees were between 18 and 25 years of age, and where combatting government overreach was the most dominant philosophy.
Following Mr. Paul and Mr. Rubio in the balloting was former Sen. Rick Santorum in third with just 8 percent, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who was not invited to speak at this year's CPAC — with 7 percent, and Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP's vice presidential nominee last year, in fifth place with 6 percent.
Mr. Paul's victory puts him in the footsteps of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, who won in 2010 and 2011.
"I've been standing with Rand since I came out of the womb," said Austin Alexander, a 26-year-old consultant from New York who voted for the senator in the straw poll, and who volunteered for the elder Mr. Paul's presidential campaign in 2012. Mr. Alexander said he believes the GOP is moving in the direction the Pauls espouse.
In past CPAC straw polls, activists have sometimes said they didn't find any strong candidates. This year, though, voters found plenty of choices they could be happy with — particularly with Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul.
"They were both very good, and Marco Rubio's this positive, optimistic sort of ... embodiment of the American story," said Judy Blake, 67. "I really like Rand Paul, too. His was a more constitutional, principled, sort of thing and kind of more fact-based, if you will."
She opted for Mr. Rubio because she said he can attract a wider audience with his personal narrative.
The poll, sponsored by The Washington Times and conducted by Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, surveyed 2,930 CPAC attendees between Thursday and Saturday. Of those, 41 percent were students, suggesting a crowd skewed toward younger conservatives — a theme of this year's conference.
Voters also decidedly leaned toward the libertarian wing of the GOP, as opposed to defense hawks or social conservatives: 77 percent said their chief goal was promoting individual freedom by reducing government intrusion, while just 15 percent said they are focused on traditional values and only 8 percent said they focus mainly on national security.
Mr. Santorum and Mr. Rubio did well among the "values voters" in the CPAC straw poll.
James Reed, a junior at George Washington University, said he backed Mr. Santorum in the straw poll.
"I believe he stands up for traditional marriage and for the pro-life movement, and I'm a values voter — I can say that with pride," said Mr. Reed, who runs the pro-life student group at his school. "I'm Catholic; Senator Santorum is also Catholic. He's a member of the Knights of Columbus; so am I. We share the same values that we want America to have."
CPAC attendees were overwhelmingly skeptical of government use of drones to either spy on or to kill Americans, and strongly in favor of cutting spending to solve the federal debt problem, rather than raising taxes as part of a solution. But the voters did not like the composition of the budget sequesters, with 68 percent saying they didn't approve of across-the-board trims.
But it is the presidential preference poll that draws the most attention, and this year's results will be no exception.
In one surprising result, political newcomer Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon whose speech at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year became a conservative rallying point, came in seventh in the poll with 4 percent — tied with Sen. Ted Cruz.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker collected 5 percent of the vote — good for sixth place.
The poll offered 23 names of potential presidential candidates, and let voters write in a name if their choice wasn't listed.
Several high-profile conservative lawmakers didn't crack the top 10, including a slate of sitting governors, led by Virginia Gov. Bob MCDonnell, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was in ninth place with 3 percent of the vote, tied with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who appears to be testing the presidential waters, was not on the ballot, at his own request.
He took less than 1 percent of the vote as a write-in — and some CPAC attendees went out of their way to say they don't want to see another Bush family member try to win the GOP's nomination.
"Bush — we don't need that," said KCarl Smith, founder of the Frederick Douglass Republican Movement. Mr. Smith said he planned to vote for Mr. Jindal, though he was also a fan or Mr. Rubio. He said Dr. Carson grabbed his attention. "Again, not another Bush — that's it for me."
Last year, Mitt Romney won the straw poll, which came in the middle of a bruising GOP primary. Mr. Santorum took second place.
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