Washington -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney beat party rival Rick Santorum in the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) 2012 straw poll, giving the front-runner a much-needed boost among conservative voters.

Tony Fabrizio, CPAC pollster, said 38 percent of 3,408 voters supported Romney at the election-year conference. The former governor of Massachusetts was followed by Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, with 31 percent; Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, with 15 percent; and Ron Paul, a U.S. representative from Texas, with 12 percent. Paul had won the CPAC straw poll in each of the previous two years.

There were some boos from the audience as Fabrizio announced the numbers. Santorum, fresh from a sweep of Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri last Tuesday, attracted a lot of vocal supporters at the conference. Romney made an obvious effort in a speech Friday to appeal to critics who thought he wasn't conservative enough.

Honored to have won the CPAC straw poll. I'm heartened that so many friends here agree with me about the need for conservative change, Romney tweeted.

Many CPAC voters -- 34 percent -- chose U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for the vice presidential position. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell each garnered 9 percent for the same spot. Participants had the opportunity to write in a vice presidential pick if they weren't happy with the options on the multiple-choice ballot; Fabrizio said U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., a Tea Party freshman, and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., were the most popular write-ins.

Straw polls in presidential races are not always indicative of who the official nominee will be. U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., enjoyed a short surge after winning the Ames straw poll in Iowa last August, but she dropped out after coming in last place in the same state's caucuses on Jan. 3.

Paul, a Texas libertarian who experiences bursts of momentum but trails Romney in the competition for delegates, dominated the CPAC straw poll the past two years. In 2010, Paul won with 31 percent, followed by Romney with 22%. In 2011, Paul won with 30 percent, followed by Romney with 23%.

Romney won the straw poll in 2008, even though he dropped out of the presidential race during the conference and endorsed U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who went on to lose in the general election that year.

Paul's wins in the previous two years were partly due to the throngs of his fans who came to the conference -- Paul heavily subsidized the costs for students. But Paul skipped the conference this year to campaign in Maine. The Texas congressman sent his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who spoke in his place, but there weren't nearly as many Paul supporters as there were last year.

However, this year's CPAC also attracted a large number of young people: 44 percent of the straw-poll participants were students.

Unsurprisingly, most conference attendees disapproved of the job President Barack Obama is doing. Only about 19 percent said they approved of the job the president was doing

We want to find the 19% of the conservatives who approved of him. But you're entitled to your opinion, Fabrizio joked.

The poll, sponsored by The Washington Times, was conducted online for the first time. It was the second highest voting turnout for a CPAC convention.