Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) won the always-anticipated, rarely predictive presidential straw poll Saturday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, but he did so with less than a third of the vote - a result that suggested the energy of conservative activists at the gathering has not coalesced behind a single candidate.
Winning for the second year in a row, Paul carried about 30 percent of the 3,742 votes cast. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney came in second with about 23 percent. Beyond that the vote splintered, with no potential candidate rising above the single digits.
Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who devoted much of his CPAC speech to marijuana legalization, drew 6 percent of the vote. So did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has repeatedly said he is not running for president. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich took 5 percent of the vote. Other contenders, including Sarah Palin, trailed further behind.
The straw poll has little predictive power. Romney won in 2007 and 2008 - the latter win coming as he was dropping out of the presidential primaries.
CPAC organizers framed the survey as a way to stir debate and encourage political participation. "This is a straw poll, not a scientific survey," pollster Tony Fabrizio told reporters. "I think it shows where there is energy, but always where there is energy there is not always victory."
The group did not dismiss Paul fans, however. "Ron Paul energized kids, and I want those kids," said David Keene, outgoing chairman of the American Conservative Union, organizer of CPAC. "The result is a more energized, bigger and more effective political party or political ideological movement."
The poll came after three days of speeches to the conference by leading Republicans, many given with an eye to 2012. Establishment candidates like Romney, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) played it safe with solid speeches designed to draw polite if not uproarious applause from the crowd. Gingrich and former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels delivered detail-heavy addresses that evoked nothing so much as college lectures.
Paul and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) served up slab after slab of rhetorical red meat - and the CPAC crowd ate up every word.