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Romney picked as 2012 GOP front-runner

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  • NEW: Mitt Romney wins poll of conservative activists for 2012 presidential candidate
  • NEW: Rush Limbaugh says conservatives can take back the country
  • Romney delivers address much like his campaign stump speech
  • Pawlenty urges outreach to middle-class "Sam's Club voters"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Conservative activists on Saturday named former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney the winner of a poll for best 2012 GOP presidential candidate.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won 20 percent of the vote in straw poll for presidential favorites.

The poll marked the third consecutive year Romney came out on top.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal placed second in the annual poll, conducted at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Romney received 20 percent of the vote and Jindal got 14 percent.

Close behind were Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who each received 13 percent of the vote.

The results were culled over two days from 1,757 of the party activists who came to Washington for the annual conference and filled out ballots on Thursday and Friday. Nearly 60 percent of the straw poll participants were between the ages of 18 and 25. More than half of the conference attendees this year were college students.

The choices in the poll were: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist; former House speaker Newt Gingrich; former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee; Jindal; Paul; Palin; Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; Romney; South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and "Undecided." There was also space on the ballot for a write-in candidate.

The results could go a long way in shoring up a presidential hopeful's conservative resume, as was the case with Romney when he won the straw poll in 2007 for 2008.

The eventual Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, finished fifth in the 2007 vote, and lost to Romney in 2008 as conservatives at the conference expressed frustration that the Senate maverick was close to cinching up the nomination.

In criticizing Obama and House Democrats in a speech Friday, Romney -- often interrupted by standing ovations -- made clear that he intends to remain a player in Republican politics as he eyes a potential presidential bid in 2012.

CPAC attendees also were able to vote on their approval of President Obama and Republicans in Congress.

Only 4 percent said they approve of the job Obama is doing.

CPAC ended Saturday with radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh delivering the keynote address.

Limbaugh called on conservatives to take the country back.

"I want to tell you who conservatives are. We conservatives have not done a good enough job of just laying out basically who we are because we make the mistake of assuming that people know," he said.

"We love people. When we look out over the United States of America, when we're anywhere, when we see a group of people such as this or anywhere, we see Americans."

In order to take the country back, Limbaugh said, "All we need is to nominate the right candidate. It's no more complicated than that."

Limbaugh praised Obama as one of the most gifted politicans he has seen, but said, "It just breaks my heart that he does not use these extraordinary talents and gifts to motivate and inspire the American people to be the best they can be. He's doing just the opposite."

Limbaugh accused Obama of wanting people to be in fear instead of motivating the country.

In the absence of a clear GOP leader, a political ad airing Friday put out by supporters of Obama implies the conservative radio host has himself become the de facto head of the Republican Party.

The ad argues that the Republican leadership in Congress is following Limbaugh's lead in opposing the Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus package.

"So who are Republican leaders listening to?," the announcer asks before the 30-second ad cuts abruptly to footage of Limbaugh saying, "I want him [Obama] to fail."

It was paid for by Americans United for Change and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, two groups that supported Obama during the election and are advocating for his agenda.

In response to the ad, the Republican National Committee said, "The Democrats are running a permanent campaign rather than doing the bipartisan work of governing." Read about the new ad

"These ads are part of the Democrats' larger strategy to do something, anything, to try to take the focus off their massive spending binge," RNC spokesman Alex Conant said. Video Watch: Who will lead the GOP? »

Meanwhile, throughout the conference, other Republican leaders and rising stars took turns at the podium.

Pawlenty told the conference audience Saturday that Republicans must do a better job of reaching out to working-class voters, a group he said agrees with the GOP on most issues, from gun rights to health care to education.

The problem, Pawlenty said, is that lower and middle income voters -- a group he terms "Sam's Club voters" -- don't believe Republicans "are for the working person."

He said the party must stress its commitment to job creation and market itself "with a feel and concern and tone and an understanding of the importance and the challenges of the working class of this country.

"And it doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our principles to do it," Pawlenty said.

Like most of the Republicans who have addressed the annual gathering of conservatives this week, Pawlenty characterized the White House economy recovery package as a "sprawling spending buffet."

The governor bemoaned the president's budget plan, unveiled earlier this week, which predicted a $1.75 trillion deficit for the upcoming fiscal year.

"A day or two later the Democrats convened a fiscal responsibility summit," he said. "What's next? Are they going to have Rod Blagojevich convene an ethics summit?"

Pawlenty and his wife Mary also spoke Friday night to a closed-door reception for "Rebuild the Party," a Web-based grassroots initiative to modernize the party.

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On Friday, Romney and Gingrich packed the ballroom.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul also drew a big crowd and lots of applause. Paul said the conservative movement has struggled to define what it means to be a conservative.

CNN's Peter Hamby, Kristi Keck, Mark Preston and Martina Stewart contributed to this report.

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