Update at bottom: Paul tells CNBC he's "leaning to being undecided"
Remember the big conservative conference Fox News has been hyping over the past 10 days?
The Conservative Political Action Conference's presidential straw poll, a key marker of the mood among conservative voters, apparently didn't mean anything to the network. And if it did mean something, the only real result is bragging rights for the individual candidates who were so well exposed. And hey, even Dick Cheney showed up.
Or, at least that's how Fox News characterized the poll, after it was reported that Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) had won it by a wide margin.
CPAC participants voted for Paul as their favored candidate by some 31 percent, giving him the largest margin of victory in recent years. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has won the vote over the last three years, was the runner up with 22 percent. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was third with seven percent.
Over 10,000 people attended CPAC this year. Among them, 2,395 voted in the straw poll.
"It is way early, it is unscientific," said a Fox News host, even as the split-screen showed Glenn Beck on stage at the conference. "Perhaps it offers nothing more than bragging rights, uh, through the course of this year. But, it is quite a, uh, enthusiastic crowd. What a difference a year makes."
What a difference a year makes, indeed. Paul himself said something quite similar a day prior, when he spoke before the largest, loudest audience of any other presenter.
He asked if the crowd remembered when he was the guy "off in the corner" predicting doom, and none in the media paid him any serious mind.
"All the sudden, the crash that I had predicting all along: it came," Paul said. "And now, Fox News TV has had me on about 60 times since the campaign was over."
On its Web site, Fox News said that the vote is "not necessarily a good forecaster" of conservatives' leanings nation wide.
Jake Gibson, micro-blogging for Fox News's Live Shots, wrote that Paul's win was "surprising" and caused very audible booing throughout the crowd. Meanwhile, Live Shots writer Kelley Beaucar Vlahos characterized the poll as an annual competition between the Republicans' "bright lights."
"Some older CPAC attendees don’t seem to care much for the Texas congressman, sure, but many young activists seem to regard him as a hero of sorts," he wrote. "When he talks about the debt, like he did on Friday, calling it a 'monster' that will 'eat up' our future, it was with a passion that you can’t fake in politics. He also didn’t mind challenging many of the room’s security hawks on foreign policy."
Indeed, Costa touched on a key undercurrent at this year's CPAC: youth. According to the straw poll's detailed breakdown [PDF link], 48 percent of the participants were students. A full 80 percent of respondents said their number one issue is "to promote individual liberty" and "reduce the size of government." Sixty-four percent of participants were male.
Conservative blog Hot Air questioned whether the poll could be taken seriously, adding: "53 percent say they wish the GOP had a better field of presidential candidates. Is that an outlier produced by the Paulnut contingent too, or genuine proof that there’s room for a dark horse?"
Huckabee, now a paid Fox News contributor, joined other conservatives in kicking sand on Paul's victory, telling one of his coworkers that he abstained from CPAC because it had been taken over by libertarian activists.
“CPAC has becoming increasingly more libertarian and less Republican over the last years, one of the reasons I didn’t go this year," he said, according to Politico.
He also knocked the conference's relevance this year in particular, with so much activity around the tea parties.
"Because of the way that it solicits sponsors, it’s almost becomes a pay-for-play," he said, taking a shot at the group's credibility as a whole. "It’s kind of like, who will pay money to be able to be a sponsor and get time in the program. That’s one of the things that has hurt its credibility in the last couple of years."
FireDogLake noted that even Ann Coulter told a CPAC crowd that she agrees with Paul on everything, except his foreign policy. "Or, put another way," wrote FDL user Blue Texan, "Coulter and the neoconservatives that have taken over the Republican Party want Ron Paul’s pre-WWI, pre-Fed, pre-Social Security, pre-IRS federal government — to go with LBJ’s Great Society military."
Among the poll's participants, 98 percent said they disapproved of the job President Obama is doing. Sixty-eight percent said they approved of congressional Republicans' actions.
In 2009, CPAC was arguably the biggest event in conservative politics all year, featuring right-wing all-stars like Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter and many more. In 2008, pollsters were shocked when Romney beat Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) by just one percent of the vote, even after announcing the suspension of his presidential campaign.
That year, Paul tied for third with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee with 12 percent of the vote. In the same poll for 2009, Ron Paul again came in third place, this time with 13 percent of the vote. He was bested by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, at 14 percent, and Mitt Romney, with 20.
"I believe we are on the verge of something very significant," Paul told CPAC in 2010.
Strangely, in The Washington Post's Monday coverage of the GOP's 2012 presidential contenders, the congressman from Texas was not mentioned once. Staff writer Chris Cillizza instead plugged Romney as the party's "nominal front-runner."
This video is from Fox News, broadcast Feb. 20, 2010, as culled by watchdog group Media Matters.
Paul tells CNBC he's "leaning to being undecided"
Monday morning, Paul revealed his 2012 plans on CNBC's Squawk Box. Or lack thereof.
"You don't know and I don't know," Paul told CNBC's Joe Kernan, "so I don't have any plans made. I take one day at a time and that keeps me kind of busy."
Noting "the numbers" he received in the poll, the CNBC host prodded Paul, "Are you leaning towards doing it again?"
"No, I'm leaning to being undecided," Paul joked.
But Paul admitted that "it is significant and it does get me excited."
Paul suggested that "maybe the sentiments about me are changing."
"I think there's definitely been a shift in attitude," he said. "It's not the conventional wisdom of the old Republican Party conservatism. I think something new is coming along."
The following video aired on CNBC on 2/22/10: