(Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images)
Catalina Camia and Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY
The next presidential election is more than three years away, but to thousands of conservative activists they view the top contenders to be GOP Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.
Paul, R-Ky., edged out his freshman colleague of Florida as the top vote-getter in the presidential straw poll conducted at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which wrapped up its 40th conclave on Saturday.
Paul garnered 25% of the CPAC vote, while Rubio, who was considered by Mitt Romney as a potential running mate in 2012, took 23% of the vote.
Both Paul and Rubio - two Tea Party favorites elected in 2010 - were among the featured speakers at CPAC, billed as the largest gathering of conservative activists in the country. Even though they have only been in Washington a short time, both senators have already made their mark: Paul with his recent 13-hour filibuster protesting the Obama administration's drone policy and Rubio on immigration legislation.
CPAC wrapped up its event in the Washington suburbs with remarks from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose hard-charging ways have rankled even some Republicans. He made headlines this week during a heated exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on guns and the Second Amendment.
"If standing for liberty and the Constitution makes you a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird," said Cruz, using the derisive nickname given to him and Paul by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain later apologized for the remark.
CPAC regularly attracts the rising stars of the Republican Party and is often a place where potential White House contenders make an impact with the grass-roots activists who can help fuel a national campaign.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum came in third in the straw poll with 8% of the CPAC vote, followed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was not invited to speak at the conference, with 7% of the vote. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, who was supported by 6% of the CPAC voters.
Lauri Dabbieri, a high school teacher from Fairfax County, Va., said she voted for Paul when she heard the senator say he would abolish the federal Department of Education, which she called "completely useless.' Education is a local issue, she said.
So did Antonio de la Pena, a college student at University of Virginia, who called Paul "a more toned down version of Ron Paul.'' Phil Johnson, 27, a technology project manager for a financial services company, said the senator is "the one candidate who has a grasp on liberty."
There were 23 candidates in the straw poll, which was sponsored by The Washington Times and conducted by Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates. There were also 44 write-in candidates, including former congressman Allen West and ex-secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"The conservative movement hasn't quite come to a consensus," pollster Tony Fabrizio said Saturday about the wide field included in the poll.
CPAC's straw polls typically don't match up with the results of presidential primaries or elections.
The passionate followers of former Texas congressman Ron Paul - Rand Paul's father - helped the libertarian-thinking Republican win the CPAC straw poll twice, but that didn't translate when it came time to vote in GOP primaries. Since 1976, only Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have won the CPAC straw poll and gone on to win the White House.