Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Martha T. Moore and Catalina Camia, USA TODAY
OXON HILL, Md. - The next presidential election is more than three years away, but to thousands of conservative activists, the top contenders are GOP Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.
Paul, R-Ky., edged out his freshman colleague from Florida as the top vote-getter in the presidential straw poll conducted at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which wrapped up its 40th gathering Saturday.
Paul won 25% of the CPAC vote, while Rubio took 23% of the vote. The annual conservative convention is popular with college students: Of the 2,930 voters, more than half were aged 18-25 and two-thirds were men.
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. Though each has been in Washington only a short time, both senators have made their mark: Paul with his recent 13-hour filibuster protesting the Obama administration's drone policy and Rubio with a role in crafting a bipartisan proposal on immigration reform. Rubio was also among the candidates considered by Mitt Romney to be his running mate in 2012.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a third Tea Party favorite, wrapped up the CPAC event, held in the Washington suburbs. Cruz made headlines this week during a heated exchange with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., about guns and the Second Amendment. His hard-charging ways have rankled even some Republicans: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called Cruz and Paul "wacko " for their stance on drones. McCain later apologized for the remark.
"If standing for liberty and the Constitution makes you a wacko bird, then count me a proud wacko bird," Cruz told the CPAC audience, which gave him big ovations for his pledge to "stand with Israel'' and his desire to abolish the federal education department.
Republicans must "focus every policy on easing the means of ascent up the economic ladder,'' Cruz said.
CPAC regularly attracts the rising stars of the Republican Party, and it 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, 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."
Mary Powers, 26, of Arlington, Va., voted for Rubio because she likes his position on immigration. "That's what's really needed - a young conservative who is new in Washington, who can unite the conservatives and the Republicans and reach across the aisle.''
She also said she liked the way Rubio handled his awkward moment taking a drink of water during his State of the Union response, which he has since joked about repeatedly. "The way he's spun that is just so awesome," Powers said.
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 Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, 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.