Sen. Rand Paul won this weekend’s Washington Times/CPAC presidential preference straw poll for the third time, but the real battle was going on beneath him, with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker easily distancing himself from the rest of the field, while Sen. Marco Rubio continued to struggle as the GOP begins to debate its next White House nominee.
The activist leaders at the Conservative Political Action Conference also sent a message to Republicans on Capitol Hill, saying that Congress should use its power of the purse to halt President Obama’s deportation amnesty.
More than 3,000 activists voted in the straw poll, taken Thursday through Saturday at the conference, which was held in suburban Maryland, and the mood was combative, with both Mr. Obama and some Republican leaders coming under fire for everything ranging from foreign policy to immigration.
Potential presidential candidates repeatedly criticized GOP leadership on Capitol Hill for the way the immigration fight with Mr. Obama has gone, and the activists on Saturday booed when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s name was read as fifth place in the straw poll.
Mr. Bush says he opposes Mr. Obama’s unilateral grant of amnesty to illegal immigrants, but also says the country must legalize those illegal immigrants at some point anyway — a stance that meets with resistance among conservatives, who generally want to see them either deported or given some status shy of citizenship.
Immigration has also taken a toll on Mr. Rubio, who two years ago came in second in the presidential straw poll but sank to seventh place this year, garnering less than 4 percent of the vote.
His decline coincides with his decision to join the so-called Gang of Eight senators who wrote the 2013 immigration bill that would have offered most illegal immigrants a path to citizenship — the legislation that paved the way for Mr. Obama’s new unilateral deportation amnesty.
The beneficiaries of the weekend were Mr. Paul and Mr. Walker, with Sen. Ted Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson placing third and fourth.
“You have to say that Rand Paul did what he had to do when he came here. He fired up his passionate supporters, who were out in number, as they always are, and he maintained equilibrium with them and held them solid,” said Charlie Gerow, a board member of the American Conservative Union, which plays host to CPAC.
Mr. Paul said his win was evidence that the GOP is looking to broaden its message with a bolder conservative approach.
But history suggests Mr. Paul is unlikely to carry the GOP’s flag come next year. The CPAC straw poll winner a year out from the primaries has never gone on to be the party’s nominee.
Mr. Walker saw the biggest surge in this year’s poll, rising from sixth place and 7 percent last year to reach 21.4 percent this year.
Karen Reagan, 38, from Raleigh, North Carolina, praised Mr. Walker’s stand against public sector labor unions in Wisconsin — a battle that earned him a recall election, which he survived. He has since won a second term, meaning he’s won three elections in swing state Wisconsin in little more than four years.
“I think he is the most unifying figure that this party has had in a couple of decades,” she said. “This guy set out to do something in Wisconsin, and he had 100,000 people screaming at him, terrorizing him and his family.
“To stand up in the face of that kind of terror and abuse, I mean there is just no question where my heart is at,” she said.
The 17 names on this year’s straw poll already represent somewhat of a winnowing from last year, when more than two dozen names were listed.
Beyond the presidential contest, the poll suggested a continued shift among the conservative activists here toward a libertarian attitude on marijuana. The 65 percent who said the drug should be legal for medicinal or recreational purposes is a jump of 4 percentage points from 2014’s poll.
Asked about the Common Core education standards that have become a flashpoint, 57.6 percent of conservatives at CPAC said they would not be able to vote for a candidate who supported the standards. That is likely to affect Mr. Bush the most: His remarks to the conference this week included a defense of Common Core, even though many of his rivals have backed away from their previous support.