Mitt Romney’s efforts to become the preferred candidate for social conservatives were rewarded at the weekend when he won a straw poll asking attendees at the Conservative Political Ac­tion Conference who they thought was most likely to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.

Mr Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, had faced scepticism at the conference amid charges that he had flip-flopped on some of the critical issues for conservatives, changing his stance on gay and abortion rights. The initial reception to his speech at the conference on Friday was far less enthusiastic than the rousing greeting for the celebrity figure of Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York.

About a third of the 6,000 attendees at the three-day conference voted in the poll. Mr Romney won with 21 per cent of the vote, followed by Mr Giuliani, with 17 per cent. Senator John McCain, the only Republican presidential front-runner not to attend CPAC, languished in the poll, ranking fifth with 12 per cent.

Mr Romney’s campaign was the best organised at the conference. Dozens of students wearing blue Mitt Romney T shirts and carrying red Mitt Styrofoam baseball mitts were bussed in to encourage activists to vote in the poll. Even so, national polls have consistently shown Mr Romney as trailing in third place. His national campaign has appeared to stall as attention shifted to Mr Giuliani as his presidential ambitions have become clearer.

Unlike at the recent parade for the Democratic presidential candidates last month at the Democratic National Committee meeting, where the main preoccupation was to set out assertive stances on the Iraq war and for withdrawing troops, the Republican candidates largely avoided the subject, focusing instead on the need to win the war on terror.

Other than Mr McCain, the other notable missing figure at the conference was President George W. Bush.

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