WASHINGTON (MCT) — Texas Rep. Ron Paul won the straw poll of conservative activists Saturday as their top choice for the 2012 presidential nomination, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finished a strong second — but among the newer faces, no one showed much strength.

Paul was the first choice of the 3,742 voters at the Conservative Political Action Conference, with 30 percent. Romney got 23 percent.

Paul and Romney also finished one-two in last year's poll, with almost identical percentages.

In 2007, Romney won the straw poll, followed by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee, never a favorite of conservative activists, was fifth.

Perhaps just as significantly, the vote among other hopefuls was fractured this year, even after more than a dozen potential candidates paraded to the podium over three days to make their cases to a convention that drew more than 11,000 people from around the country.

While Romney got a boost, the splintered vote among other candidates was a signal that "there's no jelling around a candidate," said CPAC Chairman David Keene.

The key message, he said, is that "all of these potential candidates are seen as conservatives. People sort of like all of them."

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was the first choice of 6 percent; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who did not attend the conference, also 6 percent; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, 5 percent; Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, 4 percent; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, 4 percent; and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, 4 percent.

Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, who did not attend, got 3 percent. At 2 percent each were former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who also did not attend, former National Restaurant Association head Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and South Dakota Sen. John Thune.

At 1 percent each were former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, now ambassador to China, who didn't attend the conference, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Paul, who ran unsuccessfully in 2008 and was not seen as a strong contender, was aided at the conference by followers who have been long united behind the veteran libertarian. Officials at Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian group, said they recruited about 700 students to attend the convention this year.

Most other activists are still looking over the field, hoping to find a fresh face.

Barbour was Saturday's most prominent potential White House candidate, making the rounds of television and political blogs with interviews and delivering a brief speech that followed the same theme as his potential rivals: President Barack Obama presides over an intrusive government that's broke.

The audience welcomed the message but were more circumspect about the messengers.

The poll made that clear: 53 percent said reducing the size of the federal government is the most important issue. Second, at 38 percent, is reducing government spending.

"I'm looking for somebody supportive of the same ideas the founders had," said Alec Wade, a retired FBI agent from Springfield, Mo. "Everyone is responsible for their own health care, for instance."

"Government should leave me alone," added Richard Muny, Kentucky state director of the Poker Players' Alliance, which advocates for poker players' rights.

That means less taxation, insisted Ron Heilman, a Ft. Wayne, Indiana, businessman. Among the ideas widely discussed: The FairTax plan, which would end all federal personal and corporate taxes, and replace those with a federal retail sales tax.

"We conservatives want a fair, honest tax code," Heilman said.

Earlier in the week, much of the intrigue centered on Romney, who has been dogged by conservatives upset about his support for an individual health-care coverage mandate in Massachusetts.

He mentioned health care only once in his 20-minute speech Friday, and while he was not received with overwhelming applause, most people would not rule him out.

"He has a message, that America is great, and he has a way of electrifying the crowd like no other speaker here," said Rebecca Mathews, a Dallas conservative blogger.

"It's probably going to be him or Gingrich, or we're going to get beaten," said Don Owen, a Germantown, Md., commercial drywall contractor. "Romney has great charisma and he's a great speaker, but the health-care issue is a major conflict for him."

Some activists wanted candidates who demonstrate resolve. Daniels got a good reception as he decried "the new red menace," the federal debt, and Barbour drew support when he insisted his state is "the safest state in America for an unborn child."

3 comments on this story

Still, the crowd didn't rally around any one candidate. Margaret Bice, a Brownsville, Texas, college student, liked the toughness of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. William Reach, a student from Lancaster, Pa., was more inclined toward Santorum.

"He says what he thinks, and he'll take the right road even when it's not the popular thing to do," Reach said.

Issues mattered more to Tom Rankin, who liked Paul's brand of smaller government. "We wouldn't have things like the Federal Reserve Board, the departments of Energy and Education, all the entitlements" that prove so costly and intrusive, explained Rankin, a retired machine shop salesman from Morgan City, La.

(c) 2011, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.