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Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul won an influential straw poll of conservative activists' preference in the next GOP presidential nominee.

Thirty-one percent of attendees of the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference named Paul, the libertarian-minded, first-term senator, as their top choice for the Republican presidential nominee in 2016.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz finished second at 11 percent, and longshot neuroscientist Ben Carson registered a surprising third place finish, at 9 percent.

The straw poll is traditionally an early benchmark of conservatives' passion for various Republican candidates for the presidency.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a favorite of establishment Republicans who has sometimes tangled with conservatives and who has struggled with a recent political scandal, finished in fourth place at 8 percent. Christie made an appearance at CPAC this year after organizers declined to invite him in 2013.

Other notable finishers: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 7, Rick Santorum at 7 percent, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at 6 percent, Rep. Paul Ryan at 3 percent and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 3 percent.

The Paul family has often represented itself well in the CPAC straw poll. Fueled in part by fervent, college-aged supporters (participants aged 18-25 made up almost half of straw poll participants), Ron Paul won the event in 2009 and 2010. His son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, won his first straw poll last year.

But it's also an imperfect predictor of White House hopefuls' fortunes once they reach the Republican primaries. Mitt Romney won the straw poll in 2012, but over the significant criticism of other candidates who accused him of gaming the process. Sen. John McCain, the GOP's 2008 nominee, never won the straw poll.