Republican hopeful Ben Carson wins Oklahoma straw poll

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Ben Carson, Republican presidential candidate, speaks at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma May 22, 2015Image source, Reuters
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Ben Carson won the poll with 25.4% of the vote

A parade of current and past political office holders spoke in Oklahoma City over the past three days.

It was a man whose name has never appeared on a ballot, however, who ended up winning the Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll.

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon turned conservative author and activist, won the support of 25.4% of the 958 conference attendees who voted on who they wanted to be the Republican presidential nominee.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker came in second at 20.5%, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz finished third with 16.6%.

After the announcement, Carson supporters who ran a table in the convention hallway were understandably thrilled - although they insisted they weren't surprised, saying they had a steady stream of people interested in their candidate.

"We think he's amazing, and he's a great speaker, he has great ideas and he doesn't take all the credit," said Stella Cox from Newcastle, Oklahoma.

"He's smart, and he has common sense," added Jola Mills from Tuttle, Oklahoma.

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Ken Farr travelled from San Antonio in Texas to see Ben Carson

Mr Carson's campaign will likely tout its victory in the days ahead. But do the views of Southern conservative activists and operators - a majority of whom hail from deeply conservative Oklahoma - really matter in the vast sweep of the campaign?

After all, four years ago in New Orleans, Texas Congressman Ron Paul won the poll. Eventual nominee Mitt Romney finished fifth.

In a field as crowded as this, however, every little boost matters.

And while the first votes, to be cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, are still more than eight months away, there's a new sense of urgency among candidates to cement their place in the top 10 according to national opinion polls so they can participate in the first presidential debate, hosted by Fox News in August.

To that end, the past three days here in Oklahoma City gave some often overlooked candidates a chance to step into the spotlight.

While front-runners like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Mr Walker made appearances, three presidential hopefuls in the US Senate - Marco Rubio, Mr Cruz and Lindsey Graham - were stuck in Washington, voting on trade and national security legislation. They appeared only via video.

That opened the door for other candidates, like former Texas Governor Rick Perry (fifth in the straw poll with 5%), former Senator Rick Santorum, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (fourth at 5.3%), Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Hewlett-Packard head Carly Fiorina.

Image source, Getty Images
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Bobby Jindal focused on the issue of "religious liberty"

Mr Christie pitched the audience on his plan to limit Social Security retirement benefits for the wealthy and cut government regulation.

Later on Friday, Mr Jindal focused on what he sees as an ongoing cultural and political war on religious values - most notably in the recent protest against states that attempt to allow business to refuse to do business with those seeking same-sex marriages.

"The United States of America did not create religious liberty," he said, "religious liberty created the United States of America."

It was a line that struck a chord with Ron Hulshizer of Edmond, Oklahoma, who was in the crowd.

"When he made the comment that the country was founded on religious freedom, if you look at the history, it was," he said. "It's ironic it's now come that Christians, and really all religions, are under persecution. If you're not secular, you're just not on the right side."

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Ron Hulshizer sees religious freedom under attack in the US

On Saturday morning, Ms Fiorina touted her experience as a business leader, her foreign policy views and her ability to take on the woman who would be her likely Democratic opponent.

"We know Hillary Clinton won't be held to account unless we have a nominee who holds her to account in the general election," she said.

Mr Carson perhaps benefited the most from the smaller list of attendees, however, as he filled in for Mr Cruz - last year's straw poll winner - as the keynote speaker of Friday evening's gala dinner.

"I always enjoy coming to Oklahoma," Mr Carson told the members of the audience who paid $100 (£65) a head for the meal, "because there are a lot of people here with common sense."

The conservative firebrand had particularly vocal backing from those at the conference who feel like the current crop of Republican politicians have let them down.

"When conservatives won in 2010 and 2014, we expected big things, and they've gone to Washington and they've stayed, and not much has changed," said Carson supporter Ken Farr of San Antonio, Texas.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has raised the most money in the early days of the campaign and still holds a narrow lead in most national polls, came in sixth in the straw poll with 4.9%.

Image source, Getty Images
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Jeb Bush said that the Republican Party needs to get outside of its comfort zone

During his speech on Friday morning, he said the Republican Party has to move "beyond preaching to the choir" - a reference to the conservative true believers in the audience.

"I love the choir, don't get me wrong, but we need to get outside of our comfort zone," he said, adding that he will reach out to voters in Latino neighbourhoods, college campuses and black churches.

His spot among the top-tier of candidates in the race gives Mr Bush that luxury. For many of the others here over the past three days, the choir is where their preaching has to start.

If they're going to make a move, audiences like those in Oklahoma City need to get on board.