Republican presidential candidate and retired pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson on Saturday won the straw poll of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City — beating last year's winner, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Carson, 63, who announced his candidacy earlier this month, won 25.4 percent of the 958 votes cast by the reportedly more than 2,000 people attending the three-day event at the Cox Convention Center.
Walker took 20.5 percent and Cruz 16.6 percent. Both Carson and Walker spoke at the conference, which sought to bring together 11 Republican candidates and hopefuls.
"History in the making," Estela Hernandez, vice chair of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said before announcing Carson's victory.
"To have it so close in the top three, we thought was very thrilling," said Bill Shapard, founder of SoonerPoll, which conducted the survey. "For Republicans, you have a wide selection, a wide choice of candidates this year."
Here's how some of the other Republicans finished in the poll:
- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 5.3 percent
- Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 5 percent
- Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 4.9 percent
- Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, 4.1 percent each
Others speaking in Oklahoma City included Bush, Christie, and Perry. Rubio addressed the convention goers by video. He remained in Washington for Senate votes on trade promotion authority and on renewing of the Patriot Act.
Cruz and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham also did not attend the conference because of the Senate votes.
"This is the start of the presidential election cycle," Shapard said. "It's good to say they’re off and running."
In his speech earlier Saturday, Carson called on Republicans to "start thinking for ourselves" because "we're about to go off the cliff."
Politicians needed to sever ties with special-interest groups, and Carson brought strong applause when he pledged: "I personally don't have any ties to any of those people, and I'm not going to develop any ties with them either."
He called for a smaller federal workforce — "We need to be able to fire people" — as well as stronger national security and improved services for veterans.
"Thousands of government workers retire every year. Just don't replace them," Carson said. "We can shift people around, but don't replace them.
"You do that for about four or five years, and all of a sudden, you have a lean, mean machine. That's what the American people deserve."
He slammed Democrats who have "politicized" many issues, including the 2012 Benghazi deaths that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
"That's not a political issue," Carson said of the Libyan assaults. "We have never — I don't care whether we're Democrats or Republicans — we have never left our people stranded and not try to rescue them.
"We don't do that. That's not America."
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