That's the question I keep getting asked in the wake of the three-day conference. It wasn't a question asked often during the event, for the simple reason that everyone expected Ron Paul to take the straw poll. But there were candidates who threaded the needle, and tried to avoid being embarrassed by the straw poll while building presidential buzz for 2012. Winners and losers lists are too sophisticated: Let's rank them.
1) Ron Paul
So that's out of the way. I've heard arguments that the backlash against his rowdy supporters would hurt him, but that's what we were hearing in 2007.
2) Gary Johnson
A third-place showing in the straw poll gave Johnson his first real media hook that wasn't some combination of "he wants to legalize drugs" and "he's the new Ron Paul!" Oh, sure, half of Johnson's coverage now will still be "how is he different than Ron Paul?" But that's an improvement. He met tons of reporters, commanded a small scrum after the vote, and is a slightly lighter shade of dark horse now.
3) Mitch Daniels
Social conservatives whiffed by condemning Daniels' appearance at CPAC. I'm of the belief that his "social truce" comments and positioning won't hurt him if he runs for president -- if asked about social issues, he has the right answers and the right record for the hardliners. His speech was smart and memorable, and, yes, it dominated the Drudge Report for twelve hours. And he formulated the "truce" issue perfectly. Of course, he'd done that in the first place only to see it chewed up by the news cycle.
4) Haley Barbour
For the first time, he gave a speech with national ambitions to a national audience, and he nailed it. (Both Daniels and Barbour spoke after the straw poll closed, allowing reporters to discount their showings.)
5) John Bolton
There is a place in every presidential race for the say-anything candidate. Bolton proved himself able to the task of becoming a new Alan Keyes, especially because so many 2012 hopefuls balked at mentioning Egypt -- an evolving situation that doesn't really fit into a partisan attack space.
6) Donald Trump
He's now somebody the media might take semi-seriously; reporters are now aware that he's working with Roger Stone and much-loved by GOProud. Now to wait until the Celebrity Apprentice season ends.
7) Mitt Romney
He performed fine in the straw poll, again, but didn't take the opportunity for a confrontation on health care. (If he watched what happened to Orrin Hatch, this was wise.)
8) Newt Gingrich
Soon to be taken much more seriously.
9) Herman Cain
His speech was light on substance and heavy on applause lines, as all of his speeches are, and he missed a chance to do... something... to win media attention as the GOP's possible debate-winning breakout star. Also, by the end of the conference, several reporters had embarrassing stories of talking to attendees who couldn't tell Cain apart from other black Republican stars.
10) Tim Pawlenty
The week Pawlenty launched his book was the week of the Tucson shootings. The day of his CPAC speech was the day Hosni Mubarak resigned. Quick: What did he say about either topic?
11) Rick Santorum
He gave a speech, I'm told.
12) John Thune
I could say the same, but Thune, unlike Santorum, is the focus of fevered speculation about his chances. The DNC even issued an instant response to his speech. They were among the only people who seemed noticing.