- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll includes more than two dozen names for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, signaling just how wide open the race is.

The list also underscores the emergence of a new generation of Republican leaders, with eight of the 26 potential candidates younger than 50.

“This is our 41st year and, in the past, every time we have done a straw poll we had a good idea within the presidential candidate possibilities who would be the favorite,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC.

“Most of the front-runners for the 2016 Republican nomination sweepstakes are throwing their hats in the ring for the first time, and they have yet to be fully vetted by the press in terms of a presidential election. It is a different standard and more scrutiny,” he said.

The poll, sponsored by The Washington Times, is one of the main events of the three-day event, which is being held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside Washington.

It gives thousands of conservatives — upwards of 11,000 this year — from across the country the chance to send the Republican Party a message about whom the grass roots want to see as the GOP standard-bearer in the presidential election.

“The CPAC straw poll can be an early sign of grass-roots support, especially among conservative activists who play such a critical role in early primaries,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “It has previously foreshadowed strong support for Reagan in 1976 and 1980, Mitt Romney in 2008, and Ron Paul in 2012. But because it is not a scientific poll, it may not predict the ultimate Republican nominee.”

Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, said that although CPAC tends to tilt toward the more libertarian wing of the party, the poll “still provides us with good insights as to what the conservative movement is looking for.”

“The base is frustrated, the Tea Party is growing and folks are looking for leadership,” Mr. Anuzis said, adding that the event could serve as a presidential springboard for some. “The likes of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul could easily launch their campaign by inspiring the uninspired.”

But Kevin Madden, a Republican Party strategist who worked on the Romney presidential campaign, downplayed the impact the straw poll will have on the nomination race, which kicks off in 23 months.

“The straw poll is more of a scrimmage over expectations than anything else,” Mr. Madden said. “A low-profile candidate can do better than expected and get some new attention and a little love from the media and activists. A higher-profile name can finish back in the pack and it will raise fresh questions about viability with the base.

“But overall it tells us very little about where the contest will be once everyone has pads on and starts hitting for real in Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said.

The 26 candidates are far more than in any recent year. Indeed, in 2010, the most recent comparable year in a presidential cycle, the straw poll listed 11 candidates. Rand Paul won that year’s contest, followed by Mr. Romney.

Those younger than 50 on the straw poll ballot include Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, 42, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, 43, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, 46.

Of all 26 candidates, 20 of them are younger than 60, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both of whom are 51.

“Conservatives are just getting to know them,” Mr. Cardenas said of some of the candidates. “None of them have been under the bright lights of the national media in a presidential election. This will give a better sense of how significant their support is at this time.”

The slate of candidates also includes Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

There are a pair former vice presidential nominees from 2008 and 2012 — former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin — and a trio of former presidential candidates who are considering taking another chance at the nation’s top office: former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Susana Martinez of New Mexico are among the 10 governors who made the cut.

Also on the ballot are famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New York real estate mogul Donald Trump, and former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is fighting federal corruption charges.

Mr. Paul won the poll last year, and Mr. Rubio came in a close second.

Mr. Paul will have the chance to join his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, along with Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp and Mitt Romney, as the only people to have won the poll more than once.

Mr. Romney has won the straw poll four times, while Mr. Reagan and Mr. Kemp each walked away the victor on three occasions.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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