- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mitt Romney won The Washington Times/CPAC Presidential Straw Poll on Saturday, and also nipped Rick Santorum as the top choice of conservatives nationwide, according to a new version of the poll conducted for the first time this year that suggests Mr. Romney retains strong support among self-identified conservatives.

Mr. Romney won 38 percent of the straw poll, which counted the votes of 3,408 activists gathered for the Conservative Political Action Conference, which ran from Thursday through Saturday at a hotel in Washington.

Mr. Santorum was second with 31 percent, Newt Gingrich was third with 15 percent and Rep. Ron Paul was fourth with 12 percent — far below his showing the last two years, when he won with 31 in 2010 and 30 percent in 2011.

In the national survey, meanwhile, Mr. Romney barely topped Mr. Santorum 27 percent to 25 percent, with Mr. Gingrich in third place at 20 percent and Mr. Paul again trailing at 8 percent.

The poll results have no official meaning in the GOP’s presidential nomination battle but do give Mr. Romney a boost as he seeks to regain the momentum he appeared to have lost last week as Mr. Santorum swept Tuesday’s three contests.

Mr. Romney’s 38 percent of the vote among CPAC activists is the highest of any candidate since George W. Bush won 42 percent of the vote in 2000, en route to the nomination and the White House. The poll wasn’t held from 2001 through 2004, but has been held every year since then.

In both surveys, beating President Obama in November took a back seat to nominating someone who holds a conservative stance on the issues. And Mr. Romney’s win in both polls signals he can compete on the conservative ground that the other three candidates claim to have locked up.

But the national survey also showed continued uneasiness with the field. One in five voters nationally were undecided or picked someone other than the four candidates still in the race. In the straw poll taken in Washington, the figure was 4 percent.

For Mr. Romney, his victory marks a return to the top. He won the straw poll here from 2007 through 2009, when he was seen as the conservative choice as he prepared, fought and then lost his nomination battle with Sen. John McCain.

In his remarks to the conference on Friday Mr. Romney defended the record he amassed during his term as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 through 2006, saying he was “severely conservative.”

Mr. Santorum, who spoke earlier Friday, appealed to conservatives not to settle for a candidate they decide is electable to other voters. He told them to first pick the most conservative candidate and then go fight for him.

For his part, Mr. Gingrich said his candidacy is a challenge to the Republican establishment, and he laid out a broad path forward for the next president.

Mr. Paul didn’t address the conference, which ran from Thursday through Saturday at a hotel in Northwest Washington.

The national poll was conducted Feb. 7-8 and surveyed 600 self-identified conservatives who said they are likely to vote this year.

Both the straw poll and national survey were conducted by Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates for The Washington Times and CPAC. That national poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Among those gathered in Washington, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was the clear choice for vice president, winning 34 percent of the votes. But nationally Mr. Rubio tied with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 15 percent.

The national poll had some bad news for Congress, and even for the GOP’s own lawmakers: Conservatives were nearly split on their approval of Republicans in Congress, 48-46.

And there is still some residual good will toward Mr. Obama, with nearly one in five conservatives saying they approve of the job he’s doing as president.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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