Rising Republican star U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky edged out Florida U.S.
Sen. Marco Rubio in a straw poll this weekend at a conservative conference that
showcased the party's new young talent, setting the stage for the 2016
Thousands at the Conservative Political Action Conference cast ballots in the unscientific presidential preference poll, handing Paul 25 percent of the vote to Rubio's 23 percent. Former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum was third with 8 percent.
"Rand Paul has had a very good month. His filibuster gained him national recognition," said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
"I absolutely expect Rand Paul to be running for president. The torch has been passed to a new generation of Pauls," Cullen said.
Paul endeared himself to conservatives last week with a 13-hour filibuster -- a record in modern times. The filibuster, which challenged the confirmation of CIA head John Brennan, was meant to strong-arm the Obama administration into answering questions about whether the president has the power to use drones in the U.S. to kill suspected terrorists who are American citizens.
Tea Party favorites Paul and Rubio, both of whom were elected in 2010, were featured speakers earlier in the week at CPAC, rallying thousands of conservative activists with rousing speeches.
Cullen said he wasn't surprised Paul won the straw poll, pointing out that his libertarian-leaning father, former Texas congressman and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, won in 2010 and 2011.
"The best communicator in the party by far is Marco Rubio, but Rand Paul shows that you can be apologetically conservative and win," said Keith Appell, a Washington, D.C.-based Republican consultant. "If it's that close, that means a lot to Rubio."
Republican political strategist Brad Marston said the straw poll shows a push back against the GOP establishment.
"The fact is that the two of them got nearly 50 percent of the vote and a more establishment candidate like Rick Santorum or Chris Christie got 8 percent and less," Marston said.
"You're seeing the activist wing of the party sending a message to the establishment wing of the party."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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