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Rep. Ron Paul surprise winner of CPAC presidential straw poll

From Peter Hamby, CNN Political Producer
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Paul is CPAC pick
  • U.S. Rep. Ron Paul bests the field in presidential straw poll
  • Majority of participants wished for a better field of GOP candidates
  • Participation by young conservatives, Tea Partiers may have buoyed Paul
  • Party Chairman Michael Steele gets participants' lowest approval rating

(CNN) -- U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a stalwart foe of government spending, won a blowout victory Saturday in the annual Conservative Political Action Conference presidential straw poll.

With participants naming "reducing the size of federal government" as their top issue, the 74-year old libertarian hero captured 31 percent of the 2,400 votes cast in the annual contest, usually seen as a barometer of how the GOP's conservative wing regards their potential presidential candidates.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finished second with 22 percent of the vote, ending a three-year winning streak at CPAC. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin finished third with 7 percent of the vote, followed by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at 6 percent and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence at 5 percent.

They were followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who tied at 4 percent. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour rounded out the results.

Five percent of participants voted for "Other" and 6 percent was undecided.

The announcement of Paul's win, a surprise victory unlikely to have a major impact on the 2012 presidential contest, drew a volley of loud boos from the CPAC audience.

That discontent could be seen in the poll results: A majority of participants said they wished the Republican Party had a better field of candidates to choose from.

But Paul's victory might be seen, in part, as a result of his support among anti-establishment Tea Party activists -- who turned out in force at this year's conference and expressed some frustration with the Republican Party.

Reflecting the college atmosphere of the annual event, young people dominated the voting: 54 percent of participants were between the ages of 18 and 25.

The poll also contained a bit of bad news for Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who made an under-the-radar appearance at CPAC late Friday.

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Participants were asked to rate their opinions of several top political figures, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner, both of whom received a majority favorable rating.

But Steele was the only Republican to garner an upside-down rating, with 44 percent giving him an unfavorable rating and 42 percent rating him favorably.

The three-day meeting Saturday that has featured speeches by Republican leaders, training sessions for local political activists and a renewed purpose to stand firm behind their principles heading into the midterm elections.