ROBERT SMITH, HOST:
Back in 2008, Sarah Palin was a favorite of the folks who called themselves values voters. Well, three years later, those social conservatives are getting together here in Washington for the Values Voter Summit. The annual gathering is not usually known for surprises. But today, there was a straw poll that did produce some pretty wild results.
NPR's Don Gonyea is at the summit. And, Don, tell us what happened.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The winner is somebody who traditionally does very well in these kinds of closed straw polls, Congressman Ron Paul. But his number is still pretty impressive, 37 percent. But again, he brings a lot of people in just to vote in the poll. A lot of college kids come in and the like. Number two, Herman Cain, who's been surging lately, 23 percent, a good showing for him; Rick Santorum, who is a favorite of this crowd, the former Pennsylvania senator talks a lot about social issues, really, really promotes these issues, he comes in third; Rick Perry, the Texas governor, one of the frontrunners, just 8 percent; Michele Bachmann, right there with him; then Mitt Romney at 4 percent.
SMITH: Now, of course, these straw polls do not mean very much in the big picture, but it is interesting to see people who we think of as frontrunners, you know, Mitt Romney or, you know, even Rick Perry not too long ago, scoring so low with social conservatives and someone like Herman Cain, who was once upon a time considered a fringe candidate, come out so well. I mean, what's happening here?
GONYEA: This is just one portion of the Republican populace in America. These are those for whom social issues, abortion, gay marriage, the family are the issues, so that makes the results kind of skew one way. But still, it does show that there are a lot of people looking at someone like Mitt Romney, they don't quite trust him. That's why he finishes way down in the pack at an event like this.
SMITH: Now, I know that most of the candidates spoke there at this event, and they got wildly different reactions.
GONYEA: That's the interesting thing. We did get all of the mainline candidates here. And I'd like to start by playing a piece of tape of Mitt Romney talking about America's role in the world. Again, listen carefully to the applause afterward.
MITT ROMNEY: As president of the United States, I will devote myself to an American century, and I will never, ever apologize for America.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
GONYEA: OK. You can hear a polite applause there. The crowd appreciated that. Now, Herman Cain says almost exactly the same thing at his speech. Listen to the difference.
HERMAN CAIN: We are still the nation that all the other nations in the world look up to because we are an exceptional nation, and I'll never apologize for America's greatness.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
GONYEA: Again, they're saying almost exactly the same thing. But for Cain, you can hear people cheering. And up here in the room, it's far, far, far more animated for Herman Cain than it is for Romney. That kind of gets right to the problem for Romney with these particular voters. Even if he says the right thing, they're polite, but not enthusiastic.
SMITH: Now, Don, social conservatives obviously have been wary of Mitt Romney for a long time. Now, was he really trying to win them over by speaking this morning, or was he just doing this to sort of check off the box in the campaign trail and so it wouldn't hurt him down the line?
GONYEA: You get the sense that he's not here to win, certainly. He knew he wasn't going to do well in this straw poll. He knows he is the first choice of very few of these voters. He wants to be acceptable. So you do see him checking off the boxes on issue after issue.
And what I heard, talking to people, is that because they do think there's, you know, a reasonable chance that he could be the one who ultimately gets the nomination, that when compared to President Obama, they will be OK voting for him. They're just not enthused yet.
SMITH: That's NPR's Don Gonyea. He is at the annual Values Voter Summit. Don, thanks so much.
GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.