WASHINGTON Libertarian Republican Congressman Ron Paul won a presidential straw poll of conservatives on Saturday in a result that showed Republicans have far to go to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in 2012.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who in the past has drawn skepticism from conservatives, had a strong showing with 23 percent, coming in second behind Paul's 30 percent.
Other potential Republican candidates were far behind in single digits, including 3 percent for former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and 2 percent for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Neither attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Paul, who argues the Federal Reserve has too much power and the United States should retreat from the global stage, drew on his cult-like following among conservatives to win the poll for the second year in a row.
Cheers and boos broke out simultaneously in the hotel ballroom where the results were announced. It was proof that Paul, who ran for the 2008 Republican nomination, generates strong emotions.
Political analysts say Paul has no chance to win the 2012 nomination and looked to Romney's second-place showing among the 3,742 people who voted as evidence that he might be able to mount a strong campaign.
Romney, who lost the nomination to John McCain in 2008, addressed the conference on Friday and accused Obama of presiding over "the greatest job loss in modern American history."
He skirted around what critics say is a major problem for him -- his developing of a healthcare plan in Massachusetts not unlike the Obama overhaul, which Republicans dislike and want to repeal.
ROOM FOR OTHERS
The straw poll also provided evidence that there is room for someone else to come to the fore.
The poll said 56 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with the names they had seen so far as possible candidates, while 43 percent said they were not.
That could give hope to little-known potential candidates such as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who received rave reviews for a Friday night speech to the group in which he declared America's debt crisis a "red menace" that will require people to take on a war-like footing to defeat.
Fresh from making big gains in the 2010 congressional elections, Republicans at the conference said their objective now is win the White House and Senate and use a conservative majority to tackle debt and deficits.
One possible candidate, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, told the group on Saturday that winning the House of Representatives last year was "a pretty good start."
"Our House majority only gives us control of one-half of one-third of our national government," Barbour said. "We can't put America on the right track until we elect a Republican president in 2012."
He said Obama's policies have been hostile to job creation and that the $869 billion economic stimulus "only stimulated more government."
"Never forget a bigger government means a smaller economy," he said.
Whoever Republicans eventually select will face a formidable opponent in Obama in 2012, political analysts say.
A Public Policy Polling this week found that Obama is leading those who are considered the main Republican contenders in eight battleground states.
"If he stood for re-election today against one of the current Republican front-runners, Obama would almost certainly win the same number of electoral votes as he did in 2008, if not more," the survey said in a blog post.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)