Gov. Scott Walker finished second in a straw poll of southern Republicans on Saturday, indicating troubles at home haven't affected support among conservatives across the country backing him as the 2016 GOP presidential nominee.
Of 958 poll voters at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, 20.5 percent picked Walker as the nominee if the Republican primary election were held today. Among Oklahomans, Walker finished first.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson came in first place, which Oklahoma Republican Party vice-chairwoman Estela Hernandez called “history in the making.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who missed the event because of delayed Senate votes, came in third place.
The three-day conference drew more than 2,000 attendees from 22 states, according to Hernandez, and offers the region's largest straw poll. Seventy-five percent of the conference's attendees were from Oklahoma, said Bill Shapard of the political polling organization SoonerPoll.
Walker was the first likely or declared candidate to speak at the conference, offering a fiery and passionate speech that repeated stories he has told several times on the stump but also revealed his support of ending a ban on exporting crude oil — a position popular in Oklahoma, where oil production is among the highest in the country. Poll results showed 85 percent of respondents favor lifting restrictions on oil and gas exports.
The conference came after a month of rough headlines in Wisconsin for Walker, who has faced questions in the wake of a State Journal investigation into a questionable $500,000 loan his top aides pushed to give to a failing company, which never repaid the state, through a jobs agency Walker created. Recent polling of Wisconsin residents also shows faltering support for Walker, largely based on proposals in his 2015-17 budget that cut K-12 and higher education funding.
Walker left the conference on Thursday after taking photos with conference attendees who paid for VIP tickets, but without taking questions from reporters. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said more than 100 media outlets covered the conference.
Walker, who has not formally declared his candidacy, has said he will decide on a run after Wisconsin lawmakers complete their work on the 2015-17 budget.
Donna Byas, a hospital pharmacist from Norman, Oklahoma, said she picked Cruz in the straw poll but nearly switched her vote to Walker after hearing his Thursday speech. She said Walker has broad appeal among Republicans — a characteristic she didn't see in any other GOP candidate.
"I really thought about changing my mind," she said after the poll results were announced. "He hit on some red meat issues that I really liked."
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"I don't make my whole decision on religion but it is important to me to know that the guy has a faith and a faith that is a relevant one," she said, adding, "He seems like a guy who recognizes what it is to live a regular life."
On the issues, 46 percent of poll respondents said national security was the most important issue to them. Walker received heavy cheers at the conference for his comments about fighting Islamic extremist terrorists sooner rather than later.
About 40 percent were most concerned with economic issues, while just 14.4 percent cared most about social issues, according to poll results.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents identified with pro-gun organizations and 42.5 percent said they identified as belonging to the Tea Party.