[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.l.cnn.net/cnn/2008/images/02/09/art.mittmac0209.ap.jpg caption="Mitt Romney bested John McCain in a straw poll of conservative activists; Romney suspended his campaign Thursday."]
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney narrowly beat John McCain, 35 to 34 percent, in a straw poll of conservative political activists gathered Saturday in Washington - a vote that is viewed as a barometer of support from that major GOP voting bloc.
The announcement of Romney’s win was greeted by cheers from the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference. McCain is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
Roughly one-quarter of the votes in the three-day CPAC 2008 straw poll were cast before Mitt Romney dropped out of the presidential race, and three-quarters after his withdrawal.
In votes cast before Romney left the race, he beat McCain 44 to 27 percent. Among votes gathered after Romney’s withdrawal, McCain led Romney 37 to 32 percent.
Mike Huckabee received 12 percent of the vote in the straw poll overall, and Ron Paul received 10 percent. Those results were virtually unchanged among just those votes taken after Romney's withdrawal.
Thirty-one percent said that if John McCain were the GOP presidential nominee, they would either vote for someone else, or not vote at all.
Huckabee fared even worse in the survey – 36 percent said they would not support him, or would back someone else, if he were the Republican nominee.
A candidate’s chances of winning were the deciding factor for just 4 percent of straw poll voters.
Last year, Romney won the contest after an unprecedented campaign by his team. He ended his White House run at CPAC this Thursday.
In 2006, the winner was then-Virginia Sen. George Allen, who lost his Senate re-election fight later that year.
The primary season is nearly over for the Republican field, and McCain appears the party’s likely presidential nominee. But Saturday’s results highlight the difficulty that the Arizona senator faces in consolidating conservative support.
His appearance at the conference – and even the mention of his name – drew boos from many in attendance throughout the weekend.
Anti-immigration activists alarmed by Romney’s withdrawal from the race at CPAC Thursday organized that night to launch a group dedicated to preventing McCain from winning in the fall, and were actively recruiting at the conference on Saturday.
One of the organizers, Bob Shoemaker, told CNN he considered McCain a “despicable human being” who “deserved to be in jail” for his actions on immigration policy.
- CNN Associate Political Editor Rebecca Sinderbrand