Rick Santorum came in second in the CPAC straw poll with 31% of the votes.… (Eric Gay / Associated Press )
Reporting from Washington — The number of votes cast in a straw poll of conservative activists was only a couple thousand fewer than the total at Maine caucuses. But for Mitt Romney, the verdict of attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference may have been a more significant victory Saturday.
It was the best showing for any Republican presidential hopeful since George W. Bush won 42% of the vote at CPAC's 2000 confab. But it wasn't Romney's first victory there; he won the straw polls from 2007 to 2009.
The former Massachusetts governor ended his 2008 campaign at that year's CPAC, just after John McCain had taken a commanding delegate lead after contests on Super Tuesday.
At the same time four years later, Rick Santorum's triumph in three contests were seen as a sign that conservatives remain unsure about Romney. What the CPAC straw poll and a national poll of self-identified conservatives conducted over a similar period show is that there remains a divide over who the best candidate would be.
For now, Romney is the biggest beneficiary of that split.
Romney won the CPAC straw poll with 38% of the vote, followed by Santorum at 31%, Newt Gingrich at 15% and Ron Paul at 12%.
A national poll of 600 likely conservative voters, conducted Tuesday and Wednesday, also put Romney ahead but by a closer margin -- just two points over Santorum, and seven ahead of Gingrich.
"If you take Gingrich and you take Santorum and you put them together, you get a pretty convincing percentage of conservatives that are lining up," Tony Fabrizio, who conducted the poll, said after the numbers were released.
Just as notable, he added, is that 16% is still undecided.
"I think that Romney certainly has an advantage. But it's a ball game."
There was a similar breakdown in the straw poll and the national survey on the question of what was more important to voters: a candidate's electability or his positions. About 6 in 10 said it was the candidate's position that mattered most.
In the national poll, there was an uptick in support for Santorum after Tuesday's caucus and primary results. Fabrizio and Al Cardenas, chair of CPAC sponsor the American Conservative Union, said it would be risky to count Gingrich out at this point, given his past surges. But should he continue to fade and Santorum gain the lion's share of his support, it could mean that the nomination battle is a long way from over.