CHICAGO — Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and a rapidly rising Republican star, emerged this weekend as the clear favorite of conservative activists to be the GOP vice-presidential nominee, according to two polls sponsored by The Washington Times.
Conservative activists meeting at the Conservative Leadership Conference in Las Vegas and at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Chicago both said Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, still needs to work on shoring up his conservative credentials, and Mr. Rubio was the top choice for running mate.
In The Washington Times-CLC poll in Nevada, which was released Sunday, Mr. Rubio was the pick of about 28 percent of activists, while in a broader survey, The Washington Times-CPAC poll taken in Chicago, Mr. Rubio was the choice of 30 percent.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who wowed the more than 2,000 attendees in Chicago with biting humor at the expense of President Obama and congressional Democrats, placed second with 14 percent, while in Las Vegas, Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was runner-up with 18 percent of the vote.
Mr. Rubio drew 30 percent of the straw-poll vote, despite not appearing at the Chicago event.
Last week’s conservative hero, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, didn’t see much of a boost from his surprisingly easy defeat of a recall sponsored by organized labor. The Wisconsin governor picked up less than 3 percent at both the Chicago and Las Vegas gatherings.
Mr. Rubio, who served in the Florida Legislature before scoring a stunning upset in that state’s U.S. Senate seat race in 2010, has said he does not expect to be on the GOP ticket this year — though he has actively campaigned with Mr. Romney.
Another freshman lawmaker who could be in the running is Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a former White House budget director and U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush. But activists were less sold on him, giving him less than 2 percent of the vote in Chicago.
Mr. Romney, a former one-term governor of Massachusetts, had trouble winning conservatives over to his campaign during the Republican primaries, though with the race now a match-up between him and Mr. Obama, many of those activists are rallying to his side.
Still, they say there is more he could do. Asked what criteria Mr. Romney should use to pick a running mate, a plurality of activists in Chicago said he should find someone who reaches out to conservative elements of the GOP. Reaching out to independents and Democrats trailed well behind.
Less than 5 percent of those activists said Mr. Romney should focus on geography and choose someone he thinks can help him win the electoral votes of a critical state in November.
On issues, 45 percent of activists in Chicago said deficits and the federal debt top the list of issues facing the next president — even ahead of turning around the economy, which was ranked No. 1 by 39 percent.
Those findings bolstered the conventional wisdom that this year’s election will be decided almost entirely on domestic pocketbook issues. The decline in cultural values, the international debt crisis and security threats from a nuclear Iran or North Korea barely registered as issues.
Mr. Rubio’s impact on conservatives in the party could prove a decisive factor for the Romney campaign: More than one-third of the Chicago audience held up their hands when asked whether the vice-presidential candidate made a difference in whether they voted for the Republican at the top of the ticket if they regarded that person as a moderate.
Some of those holding up their hands said they would vote for Mr. Romney only if someone they see as reliably conservative is the vice-presidential nominee. They said Sen. John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate is what got them to vote in 2008.
On the political talk shows Sunday, two former Romney rivals brushed aside questions about joining the Republican ticket.
On ABC’s “This Week,” former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential contender Mike Huckabee said, “I have not been asked. I think there’s a greater likelihood that I’ll be asked by Madonna to go on tour as her bass player than I’ll be picked to be on the ticket.”
Appearing on the same program, Rick Santorum, who came in second to Mr. Romney in the Republican delegate contest this year, was also skeptical about his chances.
“No one has asked me for anything right now,” the former senator from Pennsylvania said. “If he calls me, I’ll answer the phone call.”