Rand Paul wins CPAC straw poll

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., Friday, Feb. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

— Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul won his third straight CPAC straw poll, while South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham finished with the smallest of blips.

The Conservative Political Action Conference came to a close Saturday after four days of saber-rattling and speeches where most of the Republican White House hopefuls came to energize the faithful.

Not Graham, who opted to skip the event.

Paul’s victory — just barely ahead of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — came from a CPAC audience that skewed young. Many were college-age, including those from South Carolina.

The Citadel and Clemson University each were represented by Republican student delegations. Some 42 percent of those who took part in the computerized voting system identified themselves as students, officials said.

Graham, R-S.C., chose not to appear at CPAC this week while he is mulling a White House run. Political watchers said his absence was designed to avoid the more right-leaning conservatives who commonly make up CPAC audiences. Many consider him too liberal and differ with him on some of the unsettled issues of the day, including immigration reform. Seventeen potential 2016 GOP candidates were included in the survey.

While the poll is accepted as a measurement of the activists’ pulse, coming in first doesn’t necessarily translate to presidential campaign success. Nor is it indicative of scientific polling of where the White House race stands today.

The top five finishers were: Paul, 25.7 percent; Walker, 21.4 percent; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, 11.5 percent; Dr. Ben Carson, 11.4 percent; and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 8.3 percent.

Graham drew only a 0.1 percent level of support, above former New York Gov. George Pataki but below former ambassador John Bolton.

The 17 names on the ballot were selected based on indicators that they were hiring staff in early voting states, were raising money, were talking to the media about running, and had accepted invitations to presidential-themed forums.

“If you look at these results, the people who did well will receive a bump,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

A sampling of ballots by South Carolina voters showed the results were mixed. One Citadel cadet, who asked not to be identified, said he voted for Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Paul “he’s kind of more libertarian which is how I see myself,” he said.

Paul spoke at the Citadel more than a year ago, getting loud applause from the Corps of Cadets for his support of libertarian government and for criticizing Hillary Clinton’s performance as secretary of state. Last year, he stopped by the College of Charleston.

Poll participants were asked to pick two top selections so that organizers could show a range of where the activists’ preferences are leaning.

Clemson University junior Kyra Palange said she didn’t ever consider voting for Graham, even though he’s from South Carolina.

“I’m more a fan of (Sen.) Tim Scott than Lindsey Graham,” she said. “He’s Republican; he’s not conservative.”

She marked Carson and Cruz on her ballot. Voting was done through a bank of computer terminals outside the meeting hall.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551