NEW ORLEANS – Rep. Ron Paul easily won a Republican Leadership Conference straw poll of the party's 2012 presidential contenders on Saturday, but the real surprise was the sudden surge of former Ambassador Jon Huntsman.
Huntsman finished a surprising second in the poll behind Paul, even
though Huntsman skipped last Monday's GOP debate in New Hampshire. According to Reuters, Paul brought busloads of supporters to the conference while Huntsman was unable to attend because of illness.
Paul attracted 612 votes in the nonbinding preference poll of nearly 2,000 delegates from 38 states who attended the gathering.
Huntsman finished second with 382 votes, Rep. Michele Bachmann was third with 191 votes and businessman Herman Cain was fourth with 104 votes.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor, is set announce his bid for the White House on Tuesday.
No other candidate broke triple digits. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who leads national opinion polls in the 2012 Republican race for the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama, was fifth with 74 votes.
"This win is just the latest indicator of how the majority of American opinion is turning in Ron Paul's direction," said Jesse Benton, his campaign chairman.
But, according to Agence France-Presse, when Paul's victory was announced, many of the Republican Leadership Conference delegates packed in the hotel ballroom began to boo loudly.
Paul, Bachmann and Cain addressed the New Orleans conference on Friday. Huntsman was scheduled to speak but canceled because of illness. Romney and Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who earned 18 votes, skipped the event.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spoke on Thursday, had 69 votes. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who says she is considering becoming a candidate, had 41 votes. She also did not appear at the conference.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who also spoke on Friday, had 30 votes.
Romney narrowly won the straw poll at the annual conference last year over Paul, but the survey has not been a reliable predictor of success. Bill Frist, who was Senate Republican leader at the time, won in 2006 and failed to ever get his campaign off the ground.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush won in 1998, two years before he captured the White House.
According to CNN.com, a cold kept Huntsman from the event. But his wife attended in his absence and met with supporters.
Huntsman's strong showing was unexpected, because his position on hot-button issues like climate change and same-sex civil unions are at odds with many conservative voters.
But, reported CNN, Huntsman was savvy enough to send a powerful political team to do work behind he scenes to drum up support.
Huntsman spokesman, Tim Miller, told CNN that his boss' economic and foreign policy messages made a strong impression on the straw poll voters.
“His willingness to take the debt crisis seriously and his foreign policy message really resonated with the younger conservatives who attended,” Miller said.