Rand Paul edged out Marco Rubio in the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference Saturday, reinforcing their standing as the preeminent favorites of the Republican base heading into 2016.
Sen. Paul (R-Ky.) received 25 percent and Sen. Rubio (R-Fla.) 23 percent of the 2,930 votes cast by attendees at the conference. Former Sen. Rick Santorum finished third, with 8 percent.
As the results were read to the crowd, Paul and Rubio both received large cheers and ovations. Trailing further behind: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie finished fourth with 7 percent, then Rep. Paul Ryan (Wisc.) with 6 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with 5 percent.
(PHOTOS: CPAC straw poll results)
Trailing them were Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The other 14 names on the straw ballot, and an additional 44 names written in, received a total of 14 percent.
Half of the votes cast in the straw poll came from attendees between the ages of 18 and 25, and two-thirds were men. The crowd was torn over the Republicans in Congress: only 54 percent approved of their performance.
Earlier Saturday, Palin riled up the crowd on the third and final day of CPAC with a speech that unloaded on the entries of her lengthy enemies list: know-it-all Beltway insiders, Karl Rove, big-government nannies and, of course, the mainstream media.
Taking the stage to Shania Twain’s “She’s Not Just A Pretty Face” and pulling out a Big Gulp mid-speech — a dig at Republican New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s crackdown on oversized sugary soda — Palin served up almost 30 minutes of uninterrupted red meat and left the crowd of activists more than satisfied based on their response.
At one point, she even made an off-color joke about her and her husband Todd’s anatomy, as she was belittling Democrats’ gun control push. She noted how Todd bought her a gun rack for Christmas, then said: “He’s got the rifle, I’ve got the rack.”
Her appearance before a crowd that was very much her element highlighted Palin’s transition from No. 2 on the party ticket to conservative entertainer. With no obvious interest in running for another political office and no TV presence anymore on Fox News, Palin’s clout within the party is vastly diminished — and other Republican rising stars like Rubio, Paul and Ted Cruz have filled the void.
(PHOTOS: CPAC 2013)
In her typical boisterous and confrontational style, Palin delivered an unapologetic defense of conservative principles, asserting that the GOP doesn’t need to “rebrand” itself but instead needs to fight back against President Barack Obama and establishment Republicans.
The straw poll results reflected a divide among conservative activists on a few key issues. Half of respondents said the U.S. should take a step back on foreign policy and let allies fend for themselves. Only one-third favored a more muscular approach to national security. One in five described themselves as on the fence.
On the use of drones, an issue that Paul filibustered over last week in the Senate, 86 percent of straw poll participants opposed the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens and 70 percent oppose them to spy on U.S. citizens.
On fiscal issues, 16 percent said politicians should cut spending and raise taxes to deal with the deficit. But the vast majority want only spending cuts. Seven in 10 support targeted cuts to replace the sequester, as opposed to across-the-board cuts.
As for Palin, who dominated the day’s headlines out of the conference, she had one overarching message for Washington politicians of both parties: “Get over yourself.”
“Let’s be clear about one thing: we’re not here to rebrand a party, we’re here to rebuild a country,” she said, getting a standing ovation from the crowd. “We’re not here to dedicate ourselves to new talking points coming from D.C. We’re not here to put a fresh coat of rhetorical paint on our party. We’re not here to abandon our principles in a contest of government giveaways, that’s a game we’ll never ever win.”
She quoted former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in insisting that conservatives stand strong in their principles even in the face of defeat.
“Mrs. Thatcher advised conservatives to focus their concern first and foremost on the people. She said look at every problem from the grassroots, not from the top down,” Palin said. “She also cautioned conservatives not to go wobbly on their beliefs to which I offer a hearty, ‘Amen, sistah!’”
The former vice presidential candidate also took a less-than-veiled dig at Karl Rove and his efforts to avoid nominating bad Republican candidates like Todd Akin who go on to lose.
“The last thing we need is Washington, D.C., vetting our candidates,” she said. “The Architects can head on back to the great Lone Star State and put their names on some ballot.”
She reveled in the attention from the CPAC crowd, saying the conference “feels like home even though it’s only my second time here.”
Palin accused Obama of introducing a state of permanent campaigning in the country.
“The election came and went but the campaign never stopped. At the time when our count is desperate for leadership we get a permanent campaign,” she said. “Mr. President, we admit it, you won. Accept it. Now step away from the teleprompter and do your job.”
(Palin, too, was speaking from a teleprompter.)
Ultimately, she said, politicians in D.C. are “too scripted” and conservatives need to fight for new leaders.
“America, you deserve better than that,” she said. “We deserve better than the people who call themselves our leaders, but we won’t get it unless we’re ready to fight.”
Palin was among a collection of speakers on the third and final day of the conference that included both rising stars in the party and presidential campaign veterans who offered their thoughts on the GOP’s future.
The CPAC crowd gave standing ovations to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Conservative activists also heard from ex-presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann.
Saturday closes the three-day conservative confab, which will culminate in the evening with the results of the CPAC presidential straw poll.
Though Palin was by far the crowd favorite of the day, another speaker who got an enthusiastic response — albeit of a different style — was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who spoke to a packed house despite the early hour of his speech.
Walker spoke about how he’s worked to ease dependence on government aid in his state. In particular, he highlighted his work to require Wisconsin’s food stamp recipients to be actively seeking work or in a job training program.
“You can only imagine what the left said about that. They said, ‘Well the governor hates poor people,’” he said. “I said no, I love the people of my state. In fact, I love them so much I don’t want them to be permanently dependent on the government … what I want is to make it easier to get a job.”
Another fresh face who got an enthusiastic response from the audience was Carson, who made headlines with his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last month.
When Carson announced his retirement and made a hypothetical joke about what he’d do as president —“Let’s say you magically put me in the White House,” he said — the crowd went crazy, cheering and applauding for him.
Newt Gingrich, introduced by his wife Callista, spoke about the Republican Party’s need to stop being “stupid” and start framing its principles in a positive way that appeals to voters.
“The dominant wing of this party has learned nothing,” he said. “It is as stupid as it was in 1976.”
Gingrich, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush Friday night, said the GOP needs to stop being “anti-” things and instead present a positive vision for the future.
“We are not the anti-Obama movement,” he said. “We are for a greater American future.”
Democrat-turned-Republican Artur Davis, too, lamented the movement’s inability to capture voters who might agree with conservative principles but haven’t accepted the party’s rhetoric in the past.
Many of those voters “think like us,” he said, “they just need to hear it from our politicians that our values will work for their lives and their circumstances.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann’s speech in the morning focused on Obama, blasting the president for his “lifestyle of excess” at the White House and on board Air Force One.
“They deserve to live in the White House, they deserve to fly on a private plane,” she told the crowd, but said the Obamas live “a lifestyle that is one of excess.”
“We found out there are five chefs on Air Force One. There are two projectionists who operate the White House movie theater. They regularly sleep at the White House in case the First Family wants a really, really late show. I don’t mean to be petty here, but can’t they just press the play button?”