WASHINGTON – Though President Obama has yet to complete his first year in office, social conservatives have already eyed Mike Huckabee as a possible presidential contender in the 2012 race.
The former governor of Arkansas was the top pick of attendees at the Values Voter Summit in Washington with a double digit lead over the next closest contender, Mitt Romney.
Results from the straw poll, released Saturday, showed Huckabee having 28 percent of the votes while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won 12.40 percent. Close behind Romney were Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (12.23 percent), former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (12.06 percent), and Indiana Congressmen Mike Pence (11.89 percent) in an essentially four-way tie for second place.
Other candidates on the straw poll list were Newt Gingrich, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul. About five percent of voters said they were undecided.
Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council – the group that organized the Sept. 18-20 summit – said Huckabee's win was likely due to his being present and delivering a "strong message" at the summit.
The 2009 straw poll winner, Perkins said, clearly understands what's important to people and has his finger on "the pulse of conservative voters" in America.
While Huckabee was expected to do well in the straw poll, some were surprised by Pawlenty's strong performance.
Perkins described the Minnesota governor as an "intriguing" candidate who is able to maintain core values and still be elected in a liberal to moderate state. Pawlenty could be someone people look closely at as the next election approaches because of his cross-over ability, the FRC president noted.
Much attention has peen paid to the Values Voter Summit straw poll because it has been an important measure of who social conservatives, particularly evangelicals, are likely to support in the next election.
In the previous straw poll in 2007, Romney narrowly beat Huckabee by 30 votes. The poll, however, led to complaints as it counted both onsite and online votes. Many called Romney's win unfair because Huckabee received 51 percent of the onsite votes and was expected to win the straw poll.
In response, this year's straw poll was restricted to only onsite votes.
Four of the nine candidates on the straw poll list – Huckabee, Romney, Pawlenty, and Pence – spoke at the summit, which has drawn nearly 2,000 social conservatives from around the country.
Aside from weighing the nine presidential contenders, Saturday's straw poll results revealed what issues were most important to values voters in determining their choice of candidate to support. Forty percent said abortion was the most important issue in terms of their voting preference, followed by protection of religious liberty (18 percent), same-sex marriage (7 percent), and tax cuts (6 percent), among other issues listed.
The Values Voter Summit will conclude Sunday morning.