Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the Southern Republican Leadership straw poll for the 2012 GOP presidential nominee by one vote over Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). Both had 24 percent of the vote, but Romney, who did not attend the conference, received 439 of the 1806 ballots cast, while Paul received 438.
Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich followed with 18 percent each. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee received 4 percent of the vote, while Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) had 3 percent each. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum received 2 percent of the vote, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson had 1 percent.
The conference is rumored to be a testing of the waters for potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates, but the most definitive anyone got about their 2012 plans was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declaring he would not run. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who garnered positive press for his energetic speech Friday, said his office requested not to be on the straw poll. Radio host Herman Cain also hinted during his speech Saturday that he may be making a presidential run in 2012.
Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, however, cautioned SRLC attendees that everyone needs to forget about 2012 and focus instead on the 2010 midterm elections.
The speakers at the conference were optimistic about the GOP’s chances in 2010. Barbour said he thinks the political climate now is more promising for the GOP than back in 1994, when he chaired the Republican National Committee during the election of the first Republican majority to Congress in forty years. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who spoke Saturday predicted the GOP will take back the Congress in 2010 and told the audience that Republicans on Capitol Hill “are back in the fight.”
Several other prominent Republicans were also featured at the three-day conference, including Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Liz Cheney, and Michael Steele. Radio and TV talk show host Sean Hannity filmed his Fox News evening show on location at the conference Friday.
Repealing the new health care law was one of the vogue topics of the conference, and Pence issued a strong statement on the legislation.
“House Republicans will not rest until we have repealed that government takeover of health care lock, stock, and barrel,” Pence said.
Steele shared his own method for repealing the health care law.
“Replace Harry Reid,” was his suggestion to the audience.
Obama’s foreign policy and nuclear weapons policy also came under harsh criticism from several speakers. Cheney and Pence had strong words for the U.S.-Israel alliance, with Pence declaring “the U.S. stands with Israel.” Pence also called for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to be tried in Guantanamo Bay, not a civilian court in New York City.
Kirstin Hopkins, the Deputy Director of the SRLC, confirmed it was the highest attendance ever for the conference.