WASHINGTON -- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll on Saturday, a major symbolic victory as he tries to convince Republicans that he is sufficiently conservative to win the GOP nomination.
Romney won 38 percent of the CPAC straw poll votes, with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum coming in second at 31 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) picked up 15 percent of the votes and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who won the straw polls in 2010 and 2011, received only 12 percent of the vote.
The result came despite what has been a weaker conservative response to Romney than Santorum, who has little to prove as a conservative and Catholic who has strong evangelical support. Romney needed to fight against accusations that he is a "Massachusetts moderate" -- hardly a winning concept among staunch conservatives here -- and weak on pro-life issues.
Romney said in his speech Friday at CPAC that he is "severely conservative," and seemed to have a larger campaign presence at the conference than other groups, with dozens of volunteers lining the halls outside the main ballroom to talk about Romney after every event.
Romney also won in a national telephone poll of self-identified conservatives, also announced at CPAC on Saturday afternoon. In those results, Santorum came only two points behind Romney, at 25 percent to 27 percent.
The CPAC result could bolster the organizers' attempts to make the annual straw poll more relevant to the race after two consecutive wins by Paul. The CPAC straw poll used to be considered an indication of the preferences of strong conservative voters, but in the past two years seemed more indicative of the zeal of Paul supporters, who voted disproportionately among conservative attendees.
This time around, organizers implemented a new system in which CPAC attendees could vote either in person or online via computer or mobile device, hoping that making participation easier would make for a more accurate depiction of the crowd. "We have moved into the twenty-first century," Tony Fabrizio, who ran the straw poll, said before the announcement.
A roughly equal number of individual registrants and student attendees -- about 45 percent each -- participated in the straw poll, Fabrizio said. But votes were down from last year, from 3,742 to 3,408.
Al Cardenas, president of the American Conservative Union, told The Huffington Post's Jon Ward on Thursday that he wasn't "worried" that Paul would win the CPAC straw poll.
"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."
Paul had another disadvantage in the straw poll this year: he and his campaign skipped CPAC, unlike the other three candidates. Santorum received a particularly positive reception during his speech on Friday, in which he talked about his conservative and religious values.
The online voting for the CPAC poll was secure and there was no evidence of attempts to hack the system, Fabrizio assured reporters before the results came out on Saturday.
"Theoretically, you could sit there, if you were genius enough, and spend as many hours as you could to try to hack and figure out what the pin sequence is, but that would be a very difficult thing to do," Fabrizio said of the system, which requires a pin number for CPAC attendees to vote online. "Given the voting patterns that we have seen and the number of people participating, there is no indication that any of that is happening."
The straw poll also found that about a third of CPAC attendees believe Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) should be the vice presidential nominee; he was also chosen by 15 percent of participants in the national telephone poll. The national poll results on the vice president were less definitive, leading Fabrizio to joke to CPAC attendees, "You all have opinions. They need your help."
The straw poll could be more important than usual this year, provided the vote is not considered swayed by Paul devotees, because the race has been so divided. Different candidates won the first three contests -- Santorum in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire and Gingrich in South Carolina -- and Santorum somewhat unexpectedly won all three races last week.
On Saturday night, the Maine caucus results gave Romney more of a boost. The former governor placed first in the contest by a thin margin over Paul.