NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., won the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) straw poll Saturday, wrapping up a three-day conference shadowed by ideological disputes within the Republican Party.
Scoring his second straight win in the annual CPAC straw poll, Paul took 31% among voting delegates, followed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with 11%. Both have been notably critical of the Republican Party establishment.
"I am grateful to all the attendees who stood with me," Paul said in a statement, adding that "the fight for liberty continues."
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson finished third in the straw poll with 9%, followed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 8%.
The straw poll wrapped up a day in which conservatives gearing up for congressional elections in 2014 and the presidential race in 2016 heard from conservative luminaries of the past.
Newt Gingrich, who helped engineer a Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, told GOP supporters that they can't win elections by simply being against President Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed favorite for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.
"We must stop being the opposition movement and we must become the alternative government movement," Gingrich told CPAC delegates.
While outlining a conservative agenda based on economic development and new technology, Gingrich also "defended" Obama for vacationing this weekend in Key Largo, Fla., in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine crisis: "I believe he can be as ineffective in Key Largo as he was in the White House."
Sarah Palin, who previewed the rise of the Tea Party movement as John McCain's running mate in the 2008 presidential race, told CPAC delegates that Americans have tired of Obama.
Playing off Cruz's reading of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham during a filibuster last year, Palin rhymed some of her attacks on the president: "I do not like this spying, man / I do not like, 'oh, yes we can.'"
She also denounced "panties in a wad" people who attack others over controversial remarks, citing the criticism of anti-gay marriage comments by Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson.
Palin also faulted unnamed members of a "complacent" GOP establishment, saying "they are a different breed of cat."
Ongoing differences between more conservative Tea Party members and more "establishment" Republicans hovered over the entire conference.
These disputes are being aired this year in a series of contested Republican primaries, including challenges to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Earlier results from another straw poll by ConservativeHQ also showed strong support for Paul and Cruz, both of whom advanced to the Senate with wins over establishment-backed Republicans.
Richard Viguerie, the veteran activist who chairs ConservativeHQ.com, said that "the common trait among the top vote-getters in our straw poll is that they are all 'boat-rockers' of a limited government constitutional conservative bent — the establishment Republicans contenders are all at the bottom of the list."
Paul, Christie and Cruz all spoke during CPAC, as did other potential candidates, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
Some CPAC delegates want to draft Carson as a presidential candidate. The retired doctor gave no hint of his intentions during his speech on Saturday, but urged all Republicans to talk with and encourage each other.
"Don't let the left set you up," he said.
Speakers also reminded delegates to stay focused on the elections being held this November, as Republicans seek to add governorships, maintain their U.S. House majority and seek to regain control of the U.S. Senate.
Throughout the conference, CPAC delegates roamed exhibits of conservative organizations, bought books, and watched radio and television hosts interview lawmakers and conservative celebrities.
Delegates sat through panel discussions with such titles as "More Guns, Less Crime." A Saturday session on Obama's health care plan carried the subtitle, "A Practical Guide for Living When No One Has Insurance and America Runs Out of Doctors."
In the main ballroom, attendees listened to speakers denounce Obama's foreign policy — particularly with regard to Russia — and describe his immigration policy as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.
Democrats said the rhetoric emanating from CPAC — including opposition to the health care plan, the immigration bill, and gay marriage — is too narrow to appeal to a changing and more diverse country, making it harder for any GOP candidate to amass the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
David Plouffe, a top adviser during President Obama's election campaigns, tweeted during the conference that the "messages coming out of CPAC might get you 200 electoral votes."
Reince Priebus, who chairs the Republican National Committee, said during one panel that the GOP needs to work on "mechanics," including better get-out-the-vote efforts and building "a year-round party in every battleground state."
While not specifically talking about intraparty disputes, Priebus said that in 2016 the party needs to cut down on the number of presidential primary debates that in the past have sown division.
"We can't be killing each other for six months" during the primary season, Priebus said. "We've got to take control of our process."
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