Mitt Romney won the presidential straw poll Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an unofficial endorsement from party activists that nevertheless helps the former Massachusetts governor burnish his conservative image.
The Republican presidential candidate won with 38 percent of the vote at the Washington conference, the leading annual meet-up of American conservatives. The victory breaks a two-year winning streak by Ron Paul.
The results, though, showed Rick Santorum gaining traction among party faithful. The former Pennsylvania senator, who won three primary and caucus contests on Tuesday, came in second with 31 percent.
Newt Gingrich was third with 15 percent, and Paul came in fourth with 12 percent.
Cheers broke out at the conference when the results were unveiled, a sign of the robust pro-Romney contingent in the audience. The results came in as the GOP candidates competed on the final day of the Republican caucuses in Maine -- Romney was later declared the winner of that contest, narrowly edging out Paul.
Romney stressed his conservative record in a speech at CPAC on Friday, describing his tenure in Massachusetts as "severely conservative." Gingrich and Santorum also made impassioned addresses before the CPAC crowd.
Capping the conference on Saturday, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin delivered a rousing keynote speech stippled with President Obama-slamming zingers.
Remarking on the president's "win the future" slogan, she quipped: "WTF ... I know."
She did not use the conference to offer an endorsement in the 2012 GOP race. Rather, she said "the competition's got to keep going." She urged the GOP candidates not to distort each others' records, but said competition will make the eventual nominee stronger.
Palin said she wants a candidate who is "ready, strong, fortified, passionate" and who "can instinctively turn right to constitutional conservative principles."
"It's too late in the game to teach it or to spin it at this point -- it's either there or it isn't," the former GOP vice presidential nominee said.
Palin used the bulk of the address to criticize Democrats' "big-government agenda" -- lamenting the growth of the national debt and depth of unemployment in America. She also reaffirmed her support for the Tea Party, calling on activists to "take back" the Senate and build the majority in the House this November.
Conference organizers also conducted a national survey of 600 conservative voters. That poll showed Romney leading as well, though not by much. The national survey showed Romney with 27 percent, followed by Santorum with 25 percent. Gingrich pulled in 20 percent and Paul pulled in 8 percent.
The separate straw poll was conducted among 3,408 activists at the conference, which ran from Thursday to Saturday. Among those activists, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was the favorite on the question of whom they'd pick for vice president.
Paul won the CPAC straw poll in 2010 and 2011. However, he was the only GOP presidential candidate who did not attend the conference this year, choosing instead to focus his energy and time in Maine. Romney won the straw poll every year from 2007 to 2009.