Senior Political Reporter, The Huffington Post
WASHINGTON -- The organizers of a major conservative conference here over the next three days are trying to widen participation in a straw poll, a not-too-subtle attempt to give a Republican presidential candidate other than Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) a chance to win.
For the past two years, Paul has won, by large margins, a straw poll of attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The results have been something of an embarrassment for CPAC, organized by the American Conservative Union, which comes from a more traditional conservative point of view than Paul's libertarian-tinged version.
This year, the American Conservative Union and CPAC are moving from paper ballots to electronic voting that will be accessible from a computer or a handheld device, said Al Cardenas, the conservative union's current president. He told The Huffington Post that he hopes this will increase the number of attendees who participate in the straw poll.
"Obviously, in the past, it's been somewhat compromised because only a third of the people who attend voted," Cardenas said in an interview. "It used to be a fairly cumbersome process because you had to do it manually. Now, for the first time this year we're instituting an electronic vote.
"So people can vote through Saturday afternoon, and before, that wasn't the case," he said. "And we're hoping that instead of having a third of those in attendance vote, we'll have two-thirds or more vote."
More than 10,000 people are expected to attend, Cardenas said. He said that he wasn't "worried" that Paul would win the straw poll for a third year in a row.
"Curious is more like it," Cardenas said. "In the past, to his credit, about 80, 90, 100 percent of people who were there and liked Ron Paul voted, and probably a very small percentage of those who liked others bothered to vote."
And this year, the straw poll result will have more weight than in most years past, because it comes at a unique moment in the Republican primary. The race is in flux after former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) swept three contests on Tuesday, caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and a non-binding primary in Missouri that had no impact on winning delegates that help a candidate win the nomination, but nonetheless signal grassroots opposition to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The primary contest has swung back and forth between Santorum, Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). All three will be at the conference on Friday to give speeches. And together, the speeches and the straw poll results on Saturday afternoon will resonate with voters and the media looking to see whether Santorum is continuing to develop an organic momentum among grassroots conservatives.
The impact could be all there is to talk about for several days, since besides Maine Republican caucus results that will be announced Saturday night, there are no more primary contests until Feb. 28, when Arizona and Michigan hold primaries.
Paul himself will not attend CPAC. He will campaign in Maine on Saturday. His son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will speak at the conference on Thursday afternoon.
For those worried that Paul's campaign will be organizing to get supporters to come to CPAC and vote in the straw poll, Paul's campaign manager, Jesse Benton, said there is no such effort underway.
"We're not participating in this year's event," Benton told HuffPost. He said he wasn't sure if Paul's name would be on the ballot. "We haven't paid attention."
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