Updated at 7:25 p.m. ET
NEW ORLEANS -- Mitt Romney won the straw poll at the Southern Republican Leadership conference here Saturday in a victory that will be taken as a sign of the former Massachusetts governor's strength as a 2012 presidential candidate.
That's because the 2008 GOP presidential hopeful elected to skip the conference to continue his book tour.
Romney triumphed by a single vote over Ron Paul, who took second place 439 votes to 438. Both men won 24 percent of the vote. Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich essentially tied for third with 18 percent of the vote each.
1,806 ballots were cast by the conservative activists who attended the conference. No other candidate got more than four percent of the vote.
On the straw poll ballot, conference attendees were asked who they would vote for if the Republican presidential primary were today. They were asked for a first and second choice from among nine candidates: Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Gary Johnson, Palin, Paul, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Pence, Romney and Rick Santorum. (See the ballot here.)
Huckabee, Pawlenty and Romney did not appear at the conference, though Pawlenty sent in a video address. Some rumored 2012 candidates, including Rick Perry, Haley Barbour and Bobby Jindal asked to be taken off the ballot, Hotline's Reid Wilson reported.
Supporters of both Romney and Paul spent money in an effort to win the straw poll, with a group called "Evangelicals for Mitt" paying for 200 tickets for supporters and Paul's Campaign for Liberty offering more than 600 discounted tickets for Paul backers, according to Washington Post's David Weigel.
Paul's mostly-college age supporters stood out form the rest of the conference-goers and cheered their preferred candidate loudly when he spoke. Many other attendees remained silent or offered only polite applause during Paul's speech. Paul won the Conservative Political Action Conference in February on the strength of his passionate if limited following.
"Evangelicals for MItt" gave away books, buttons and piggy banks to conference attendees and urged them to cast ballots. Organizers claimed they did not coordinate with Romney's Political Action Committee or staff, though one attendee
Straw polls offer a signal about the level of support for various candidates, though detractors are quick to note they are easily manipulated and that the pool of respondents do not necessarily represent the party overall. The winner in 2006 was former Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, who won when the conference was held in his home state of Memphis.
More Coverage from the Southern Republican Leadership Conference: