Mitt Romney, aiming to recover from three primary and caucus losses this week, bounced back Saturday with a victory in the annual straw poll sponsored by the Conservative Political Action Committee. The former Massachusetts governor won 38 percent of the 3,408 votes cast at the CPAC conference in Washington.
Rick Santorum, who is surging after winning contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado, finished second with 31 percent. Newt Gingrich was a distant third at 15 percent.
Ron Paul, who won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011, finished fourth with 12 percent. He campaigned in Maine this year rather than speak at the gathering.
Romney's win was surprising given the trouble he has had ginning up enthusiasm from the Republican Party's conservative base. It wasn't always this way. He won the CPAC straw poll in 2007, 2008 and 2009, when the party was less conservative and his chief competitor -- Arizona Sen. John McCain -- was the one viewed with suspicion by a base that considered him too moderate.
Mike Murphy, a GOP strategist who once worked for McCain, tweeted after Romney's win: "Impressive; that's a tough room for Mitt."
Romney's previous high-water mark at CPAC was in 2008, when he won with 35 percent a day after dropping out of the nomination race that McCain ultimately won.
"Honored to have won the CPAC straw poll. I’m heartened that so many friends here agree with me about the need for conservative change," Romney tweeted. He was in Maine awaiting the Saturday night results of a presidential preference poll taken during a week of caucuses.