Straw Vote: Conservatives Hand Mike Pence the Keys to the Car

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Conservatives came out in full force Saturday at the Values Voter Summit to hear the speeches of several rising Conservative stars and cast their ballots for who they think should head the 2012 Republican presidential ticket.

The results of that straw vote might surprise you.

There has been a lot of speculation about Sarah Palin's prospective run. And after Palin decided to headline a GOP fundraiser in the key presidential state of Iowa instead of attending the Values Voter Summit this weekend, the White House seemed sure of it.

"It's normally around this time of year you go to dip your toe in the water," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday. "And that's my guess, is that she's going to dip that toe in."

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Mike Pence For President in 2012?

Palin herself even joked about her possible presidential run, during her speech in Iowa later that night.

"Todd says, 'I guarantee you, if anybody spots you in the tennis shoes, the headline's going to be -- Vanity Fair -- They're going to say, 'Palin in Iowa Decides to Run,'" she gagged to supporters.

But while all the hype has been about Palin and the Tea Partiers, she came in fifth place in Saturday's straw poll, with just 7 percent of the vote.

Instead, the social conservatives at Saturday's event favored Rep. Mike Pence, a seemingly low-profile Congressman from Indiana who -- despite flying under the national radar -- struck a chord with those in attendance by speaking their language.

"I am a Christian, a Conservative and a Republican -- in that order," Pence promised the cheering crowd.

"That's what we're looking for," said attendee Michaele Swiderski. "We definitely want a man that understands our conservative values and that puts them ahead of the party."

"Beautiful values," said attendee Michele Tennery. "He stands for traditional values. That's the primary reason I voted for him."

In addition to casting their votes for who they'd like to head the 2012 Republican presidential tickets, attendees at Saturday's events also listed their top issues on the ballots.

Abortion, government spending and a repeal of President Obama's health care overhaul topped that list. And experts believe that Pence's stances on some of these issues may have also helped propel him to the top of the vote.

"Mike Pence is a fiscal conservative, but more importantly for this conference, a culture conservative," said Jonathan Martin, senior political writer for Politico. "Unapologetic on issues like gay marriage and abortion and that really appeals to this kind of audience, filled with red meat, traditional, pro-family style conservatives."

After closely examining the factors that went into this vote, it might stand to reason that Pence came away with the victory, but there may be a reasons why Palin won the vice presidential Poll, but came in fifth for president.

"There is a view among at least some Conservatives that it's great Sarah Palin is out there," Martin said. "We like her speaking truth to power, but perhaps being president isn't where we actually see her. ... There may be a message of not wanting to give her the keys to the car."

And, while not quite so explicitly, the summit's attendees seemed to be saying much the same thing.

"Although we love Sarah and she's exciting, I think she would be much better in the vice president role and have someone like Mike Pence leading us," Swiderski said. "I think she could step up and do that, but we've kind of seen some inexperience this time. And I think we want someone who understands how to work with people in the House; to get bills passed that we need passed; and to get this Obamacare repealed."

So, perhaps it was for this reason that Palin received fewer votes, not just than Pence, but also than Mike Huckabee (22 percent), Mitt Romney (13 percent), and even Newt Gingrich (10 percent).

In fact, Gingrich -- a fiery critic of President Obama -- gained a lot of support after he fired up conservative attendees with his speech Saturday. In it, he assaulted the president's Health and Human Services Secretary for warning insurers Friday not to blame rate hikes on health care reform.

"She was behaving exactly in the spirit of the Soviet tyranny," he shouted to applause.

And, despite the often controversial rhetoric, this speech was a real crowd pleaser at the summit.

"The rhetoric was a little strong, but for the most part he's accurate," Swiderski said. "His speech had great enthusiasm and a strong will. He's becoming more conservative. We sort of think of him as a more moderate person, but today he gave a great conservative speech talking about family values and how important that is to this country."

Enthusiasm. It's a quality Gingrich demonstrated in his speech Saturday. It's a quality conservatives have come to admire. And it may well be the deciding factor in the upcoming November elections, because the most recent data has shown that there is currently a profound enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans.

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be on the ballot come November and at least 75 of them are believed to be at risk of changing hands. If Republicans can win just 40 of these 75, they will have snatched control of the House.

Considering the currently dismal economic climate in this country and the President's sagging numbers, Republicans everywhere seem enthusiastic about their chances of doing just that.