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US conservative activists have picked Tea Party favorite Senator Rand Paul as their choice to become the 2016 Republican presidential nominee as they wrapped up a major strategy gathering outside Washington.
Paul, popular among the younger conservatives who thronged to the Conservative Political Action Conference, on Saturday narrowly beat Senator Marco Rubio -- also tipped to seek the White House -- 25 to 23 percent in the CPAC Straw Poll.
The Kentucky lawmaker saw his profile raised after mounting a 13-hour, non-stop filibuster in the Senate earlier this month to block John Brennan's nomination to head the CIA.
He used the blocking tactic to press for answers from President Barack Obama's Democratic administration on the scope of its drone policy.
Former senator Rick Santorum, a 2012 hopeful, received eight percent of the vote, closely followed by rising Republican star Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey with seven percent and Representative Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate to try to oust Obama from the White House, with six percent.
Some 2,930 CPAC participants participated in the straw poll.
"We convened thousands of energized conservatives today at this 40th annual national CPAC 2013 from across the entire country," said Al Cardenas, chairman of The American Conservative Union.
"It's been a longstanding and fun tradition at CPAC national as well as our regional CPACs to poll the attendees and get their opinion on a number of important issues."
At the meeting, Paul emerged as a leading critic of Republican establishment as he looked for ways to re-invent the party following last year's election defeat.
"The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered," he said. "Our party is encumbered by an inconsistent approach to freedom. The new GOP will need to embrace liberty in the economic and the personal sphere."
Former US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin took center stage on Saturday, needling Obama and even fellow Republicans.
"We don't have leadership coming out of Washington, we have reality television, except it's really bad reality TV, and the American people tuned out a long time ago," Palin told the conference.
Palin, a former Alaska governor who was John McCain's running mate in 2008, has since served as contributor for the Fox News channel and even starred in her own reality show in 2010.
"Mr President, we admit it, you won, accept it. Now step away from the teleprompter and do your job!" she said in a swipe at Obama.
"Barack Obama promised the most transparent administration ever. Barack Obama, you lie."
Palin then caused the crowd to erupt in laughter and applause by taking large sips from a Big Gulp cup filled with soda in reference to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt to ban such oversized sweet drinks.
His plan, opposed by conservatives in the name of individual liberties, was blocked by a New York judge this week.
However, the sharpest attacks by the self-styled "Mama grizzly" were aimed at the head of her party, accused of trying to marginalize ultra-conservative "Tea Party" candidates in primaries for November 2016 elections.
"We're not here to dedicate ourselves to new talking points coming from (Washington) DC," Palin said.
"We're not here to put a fresh coat of rhetorical paint on our party. We're not here to abandon our principles in a contest of government giveaways.
"The last thing we need is Washington, DC vetting our candidates," she fumed, before lashing out at political consultants who advise on Republican Party strategy.
"Now is time to furlough the consultants," she added. "These experts keep losing elections and keep getting rehired and raking in millions."
Palin has long nursed a grievance against party strategists following her team's presidential election loss, when she had sharp disagreements with John McCain's campaign staff.