Washington (CNSNews.com) – It is beginning to look a lot like 2012 -- or in some respects, like 2008 again -- as potential Republican presidential contenders gathered in Washington this past weekend for the annual Values Voters Summit. The gathering is hosted by the political action arm of the conservative Family Research Council
On Saturday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee finished first among conservative voters in a straw poll ballot, winning 170 votes out of the 597 cast. Mitt Romney, Huckabee’s former rival for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, came in a distant second with 74 votes.
But second place was essentially a four-way tie. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty – who is not as well known as Huckabee or Romney – finished in third place with 73 votes. Possibly as a punishment for not addressing the conference as scheduled, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin finished fourth, with 72 votes; and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence received 71 votes.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich received 40 votes. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindall got 28 votes, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum received 15 votes and Texas Rep. Ron Paul got 13 votes, while 31 voters were undecided.
Both Palin and Gingrich initially were scheduled to speak at the event, but later canceled. Of those on the straw poll ballot, only Huckabee, Romney, Pawlenty and Pence spoke at the summit.
Huckabee – without mentioning the name of his former GOP primary rival, Mitt Romney -- cited Massachusetts’ universal health care system as an example of why government-run health care will not work at the national level. Romney signed Massachusetts’ health care system into law in 2006 when he was serving as governor of the commonwealth.
Huckabee pointed to Massachusetts polls showing that a majority of voters say the state’s health care plan hasn’t worked – and has made health care more expensive.
“The average cost nationally for insuring a family of four is $13,000. It’s $20,000 in Massachusetts. It’s going to bankrupt their entire budget,” Huckabee said. “The only thing inexpensive about the Massachusetts health care bill is that you can get a $50 abortion. Frankly, if that’s where we’re headed with the public option and government-run health care, thank you but no thank you -- our wallets and our babies would be better off without it.”
Romney did not shy away from his record of pushing health care reform in Massachusetts.
“I as a Republican governor reformed health care, and not every aspect of the reform was perfect,” Romney told the audience on Saturday. “But we did get everybody insured without breaking the bank and without a government option. There was no government option in my plan.”
In February, Romney won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
The nearly 2,000 people at the Values Voters Summit heard Huckabee, Romney, Pence and Pawlenty all denounce the Obama administration’s policies on spending, health care reform and the recent move to withdraw missile defense systems in Eastern Europe – a move to appease Russia, they said.
Pence, speaking Friday morning, praised grassroots opposition to liberal policies and said it bodes well for Republicans in coming elections: “This liberal, one-party government in Washington, D.C., that's offering a massive expansion of government at home and a weak diplomacy abroad has awakened a sleeping giant across this country,” Pence said. “And I think it makes it possible for us to take this Congress back in 2010 and take this country back in 2012.”
Pawlenty told the gathering Friday night that he had a strong record in judicial appointment to the Minnesota state courts.
“In Minnesota, I appointed appellate judges whose only agenda was to fairly apply the law and not make it up from the bench,” Pawlenty said. “Yet all indications are that President Obama and the Senate Democrats are going to stack our courts with activist judges.”
The Values Voters Summit could serve as a national introduction for some GOP hopefuls, said Ken Blackwell, a senior fellow for family empowerment at the Family Research Council and former secretary of state in Ohio.
“This is a vetting process. I do think that it is an important vetting process,” Blackwell, the 2006 Republican Ohio gubernatorial nominee, told CNSNews.com. “This is a time when people will look at themes and personal character. A lot of these folks are not household names. So this is a very important part of the political campaign trail and the ultimate, sort of the preseason to 2012.”
Blackwell said potential candidates who showed up should definitely have an advantage in making an early impression on social conservative voters. “Anybody who shows up says by showing up, ‘You matter and you matter to the extent that I want to showcase what I believe, who I am, my record to you,’” Blackwell said. “That’s a statement in and of itself. Jack Kemp used to say nobody cares about how much you know until they know about how much you care.”
The event and the straw poll could give voters an early sense of who the frontrunner might be for the GOP nomination, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this event -- and have the straw poll at this event -- is to begin to see who values voters coalesce around. It’s hard to say who would be a frontrunner in 2012, but we hope to have some idea after this summit this weekend,” Perkins told CNSNews.com.
“It looks like we have more people this year than last year. The enthusiasm level is three or four times greater this year than last year. People are clearly engaged. They want to make a difference and look for leaders they can get behind. What I’m seeing across the country is that people aren’t going to wait for leaders. They’re going to make change happen,” Perkins added.