The upshot of the social conservative conference isn't so much good for Paul as it is bad news for Rick Perry
Ron Paul keeps doing well in straw polls. It doesn't seem to be getting him anywhere. And yet his followers continue to put massive organizational effort into doing well in straw polls.
It happened again at Saturday's Values Voter Summit: The Texas congressman got first place with 37 percent of the vote, and the event organizers instantly set about trying to downplay the results.
Tony Perkins, president of the summit-organizing Family Research Council, prefaced his announcement of the results of the poll by pointedly noting that 600 people had bought tickets for only the second day of the conference. And he stressed that the poll wasn't nearly as important as the opportunity to hear from all the candidates.
"I think if you just do the math you see that Ron Paul and his campaign are very well organized at showing up for straw polls," he said. But while some attended the summit merely to hear their candidates, vote and leave, "the vast majority come to hear from the candidates where they stand" on social issues, Perkins said.
Herman Cain came in second with 23 percent of the vote. Rick Santorum was third with 16 percent, followed by Rick Perry (8 percent), Michele Bachmann (8 percent), Mitt Romney (4 percent) and Newt Gingrich (3 percent). Two voters of the nearly 2,000 ballots defiantly chose Jon Huntsman, who turned down an invitation to speak at the summit.
What does it all mean? Unfortunately for Ron Paul, it doesn't mean he'll suddenly be treated as a frontrunner rather than a sideshow, any more than his close second place at the Ames straw poll did.
The straw poll results will perpetuate the Cain boomlet and perhaps give credence to the emerging idea of Santorum as a comer in Iowa. But most of all, they're bad for Perry, who gave a merely decent speech that didn't do what it needed to do: get social conservatives who've written him off to give him another look.
The field continues to consist of Romney, who appeals mostly to all the Republicans who would never dream of attending a Values Voter Summit, and everybody else -- the fractured, fluctuating competition to be the conservative alternative to Romney.
Perkins said the results clearly showed Romney and Perry had "work to do." But he also praised Romney's speech and his positions on social issues. Romney won the summit's straw poll four years ago -- back when he was the conservative alternative to John McCain.
A theological cloud hung over the summit: the controversy over a Perry-supporting speaker's insistence that Mormonism, Romney's faith, is not Christianity. Perkins said he was "disappointed" in Robert Jeffress, the Texas pastor who started the furor. "We need to have a civil debate," he said, echoing Romney's call.
Media personality Glenn Beck, who is a Mormon convert, alluded to the controversy in his speech closing the gathering, saying, "As people have come onto this stage, they have been for or against, I guess, members of my faith. I celebrate their right to say those things in America."
Beck called himself "a proud member of the church of Jesus Christ," but he didn't utter the rest of the name of his church, the "of Latter-day Saints" part.
Attendees stressed that it was Romney's positions and lack of consistency that troubled them, not his religion.
"Mitt Romney's speech was good, but it was a political speech. It wasn't from the heart," said William Vogel, 60, a missionary from California temporarily based in Maryland. He voted for Cain in the straw poll but said he still hadn't totally made up his mind.
"Herman Cain was more genuine. His core is deeper than Mitt's," Vogel said. "Mitt's core is, 'How do I get elected?'" He said he would support Romney "if he's the last man standing against Obama."
Vogel and his wife said they do not consider Mormons Christians, but "they're good people" with an admirable dedication to high morals. They didn't like the divisiveness of the debate -- "I believe in a pluralistic society," William Vogel said.
In the hotel lobby, 63-year-old Pat Johnson was arguing with a Paul supporter. Her objection? "They have a big cheerleading squad, but they all exited after their candidate spoke," she said after the argument. "They did not stay and listen to other people's views."
A different Ron Paul supporter, 52-year-old William Skir, came from Long Island to support Paul in the straw poll. "No matter how well he does, the media keeps ignoring him," Skir said.
Why, then, do the Paulites keep swarming straw polls? Skir said he believed they would eventually break through.
"Across the United States, people are protesting the Federal Reserve," he said. "A critical mass is approaching."
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