Ron Paul emerged as the big winner of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference's straw poll. Coming in second was Jon Huntsman.
The surprising poll results were revealed Saturday as several Republican presidential hopefuls made their way to New Orleans to appeal to southern conservatives. Paul (R-Texas) won nearly 40 percent of the vote while Huntsman, former governor of Utah, nabbed nearly a quarter of the vote.
"This win is just the latest indicator of how the majority of American opinion is turning in Ron Paul’s direction,” Jesse Benton, chairman of Paul's campaign, said in a statement.
“The American people want and deserve someone who will tell them the truth, tell them what needs to be done, and who has an untouchable record of consistency to back it up.”
Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) placed third in the poll with 12 percent of the vote. Businessman Herman Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney followed, respectively.
Paul, who previously ran for president as a Libertarian, spoke at the leadership conference on Friday where he was enthusiastically received.
During his nearly 40-minute speech, the Texas congressman focused mainly on the economy, saying the U.S. has been in a "severe slump" for a decade now. Despite a population growth of 30 million people, no new net jobs were added, he said.
"We're slipping and sliding. It's always been moderated by more handouts, more entitlements," he said.
"We have lost our way," Paul asserted. "We care less about freedom than we do about the government taking care of us from cradle to grave."
Paul, who says his long-espoused message for limited government and greater liberties is now resonating with the country, reminded the crowd that economic growth in the U.S. came with the advancement of freedom over the past couple hundred years.
"A free society is ... the most productive society," he said.
Commenting on the popularity of Paul, Heritage Foundation Vice President of Government Studies Michael Franc admitted earlier that there is a newfound appeal for the libertarian emphasis on limited government.
And that view appeals to a certain extent to Christians who value the freedom to worship without government interference, he noted.
But that doesn't mean Christian social conservatives would flock to Paul. Franc noted that Christians may not be keen on libertarian purist views. Paul is considered a libertarian purist.
Huntsman was scheduled to be in New Orleans but canceled due to illness.