Reporting from Washington — Indiana Rep. Mike Pence was the top choice for president among conservative activists who attended this weekend's Values Voter Summit in Washington, edging out a field of more well-known Republican figures in an early test of grass-roots support.
Pence, chair of the House Republican conference, received 24% of the vote, edging the winner of the 2009 straw poll, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who received 22%. Each addressed the gathering on Friday, as did third-place finisher Mitt Romney, who won 13% of the vote.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spoke Saturday, received 10%. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who did not attend, finished a distant fifth with 7%.
Of the nearly 2,000 people who registered for the conference, 723 voted in the straw poll. Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, whose group organized the event, said the results were "descriptive of the type of candidate value voters would be looking for."
"We're a long ways from the election," he said. But Pence "represents the qualities and the character that many voters in America are looking for."
Perkins attributed Palin's underwhelming performance to the fact that she did not speak to the group in person. But he also said it could show that voters see her more as a "cheerleader who rallies conservatives together" than as a potential elected leader.
"She is a great spokesman," he said. "She says what a lot of people think. But a lot of people sometimes realize we shouldn't say everything we think."
Palin did, however, place just behind Pence in a second poll for vice presidential preference. Perkins called a potential Pence-Palin pairing a "dream ticket."
Straw polls such as this one are hardly reliable predictors of a potential candidate's viability as a presidential hopeful. Other Republicans seen as potential candidates lagged in the field; Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who did not attend, asked that his name be removed from the ballot.
The poll also asked voters for the top issues that determined which candidate they supported. Abortion was the leading determinant, followed by government spending, repeal of healthcare reform, protection of religious liberty and national security.
In a speech earlier Saturday, Gingrich outlined what he described as the two greatest threats to the nation: a "social secular machine" and radical Islamic extremism.
"We are at a point where our establishment is sliding into policies of such disastrous impact that they will in fact fundamentally challenge the survival of America as we know it," Gingrich said.
He also targeted members of the Obama administration, singling out Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and John Brennan, deputy national security adviser, as the most "dangerous."
Gingrich did criticize some members in his own party, specifically Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Mike Castle, two moderate members of Congress who lost to tea party challengers in Senate primaries. Christine O'Donnell would go on to win the Delaware Senate race, he predicted, and Castle should endorse his former opponent. Murkowski, meanwhile, was "fundamentally cheating" by seeking to hold her Alaska Senate seat through a write-in campaign, which she announced late Friday.
Palin did not attend, choosing instead to address another crowd indicative of her potential future plans. On Friday, she delivered the keynote speech at the Iowa Republican Party's Reagan Dinner.