After Ron Paul won the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference’s presidential straw poll, many observers said that the poll didn’t matter this year because it was “hijacked” by a passionate “fringe” unique to the event. This is partly true. Countless Paul admirers, many of them college-aged and on a student’s budget, purchased their own, albeit discounted, conference tickets and paid for their own travel and lodging expenses in order to support their hero.

Those who dislike Paul are absolutely correct when they point out that his supporters are not representative of conservatives-at-large. And thank God. After all, the conservatives-at-large represent exactly what is wrong with the conservative movement. CPAC 2011 was merely a reflection of this.

In addition to the presidential straw poll, there were other significant polls conducted at CPAC. One such poll noted that of the 84 percent of participants who said they wanted to “promote individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government,” 82 percent believed “cutting spending is the best way to reduce the federal debt.” These are traditionally conservative, Barry Goldwater-esque concerns, and their popularity with CPAC attendees correlates with the budget-slashing goals of the powerful Tea Party movement.

But there is a glaring disconnect between CPAC attendees desiring limited government and the Republican leaders they support. The second place presidential straw poll winner, former Gov. Mitt Romney, still defends TARP and his own version of government-run healthcare in Massachusetts. The governor, in fact, has no limited government record to speak of.

The other “viable” 2012 presidential candidates who spoke at CPAC were unable to tell the Tea Party-friendly audience where they would specifically cut government spending, choosing instead to entertain the audience with anti-Obama quips and the usual Democrat bashing.

One exception was Sen. Rand Paul, whose call to cut $500 billion in spending brought the entire CPAC audience to its feet. But Sen. Paul will not be running for president this year. In fact, the only Republican likely to run for president who would follow through with bold budget cuts is the senator’s father Ron, a man who many conventional CPAC attendees have dismissed mostly due to his non-interventionist foreign policy views. Not surprisingly, when Rand mentioned reducing the Pentagon budget in his speech, the same audience members who had initially cheered so wildly for Paul’s $500 billion in budget cuts sat on their hands. Noticing this, Paul admonished the audience, telling them that if they were unwilling to cut defense spending they were nothing more than “big government conservatives.” The Ron Paul fringe cheered wildly. The conventional CPAC attendees did not.

This contrast is instructive. Although virtually all conservatives say they want to spend less and limit the size of government, only a small portion are willing to go to the lengths necessary to do this comprehensively and substantively. This small portion is currently represented almost exclusively by the Republican brand of Ron and Rand Paul.

The Pauls’ brand is indeed “outside” of the conservative norm, as so many pundits and experts have delighted in pointing out in the wake of Ron’s straw poll victory. But what these same critics should also point out is that it is precisely the mainstream conservative movement that has chronically failed to deliver anything remotely conservative. The Tea Party itself has been valuable to conservatives precisely to the extent that it is “outside” of our conventional politics. The same is true of Ron Paul, and he remains unconventional precisely because he insists on a thorough conservatism.

If the Tea Party does indeed represent a new, serious conservatism, much of CPAC seemed to represent the same old GOP still willing to ignore its big-government contradictions, a hypocrisy that defined the entire Bush era. The 80 percent of 2011 CPAC straw poll participants who say they value cutting spending and limiting government are still too comfortable with Republicans who are unwilling to address either issue rather than with unconventional politicians like the Pauls, who would address both.

Despite his critics, Ron Paul’s win in the straw poll was actually a genuine conservative victory, a rarity at CPAC. How relevant the Ron Paul folks remain in 2012 and beyond will be largely determined by how irrelevant Republicans insist the issues of debt and government growth are. When contrasting the reaction to this year’s presidential straw poll winner to what participants want such leaders to focus on, the 2011 CPAC straw poll is best seen as a gauge of how much the conservative movement is willing to actually be conservative.

Jack Hunter co-wrote Rand Paul’s The Tea Party Goes to Washington. Southern Avenger commentaries can be heard every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd on 1250 AM WTMA.

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