ABC News’ David Chalian reports:
Mitt Romney, the once and likely future presidential candidate, didn’t show up to address the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, but that didn’t stop him from walking away with the big prize from the gathering.
The former Massachusetts governor bested the competition in a straw poll conducted here over the past two days. Romney received 24 percent of a total of 1,806 ballots cast when voters were asked to name the candidate they would support if the Republican primary for president were held today.
But a resounding victory it was not.
He won the straw poll by a single vote. Romney received 439 votes compared to Ron Paul’s 438-vote haul.
Paul, the Texas congressman, won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.
Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin tied at 18 percent each with all other candidates finishing in the low single digits. The former House speaker and Alaska governor also proved to be the most popular second choices for the nomination among straw poll voters.
Straw polls are largely meaningless and not necessarily representative (see Paul, Ron) of where the Republican electorate is overall in its early thinking on the possible 2012 contenders. However, the straw poll provided an opportunity for the Paul and Romney supporters to put their organizational muscle on display.
A group whipping votes for Romney, Evangelicals for Mitt, spent the day handing out plastic pink piggy banks with a plea to “elect a president who won’t break the bank” emblazoned on the side.
That same group of evangelical supporters helped push Romney to a second place showing in this same straw poll four years ago at the 2006 Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis, Tenn.
In addition to Romney’s absence, Tim Pawlenty, John Thune, and Mike Hucakbee are potential 2012 contenders who were also no-shows at this year’s gathering.
UPDATE: Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said of Romney's victory: "Straw polls are fun and it's always good to hear from our supporters, but our real objective as Republicans is to win back the Congress so we can put more Americans back to work."