Newt Gingrich might have dropped to third in Iowa — and he and Romney might be neck-and-neck in the latest CNN poll, but, among thousands of Tea Party activists from across the country, Gingrich retains a clear lead.

Tea Party Patriots — the nation’s largest Tea Party organization — last night hosted a Presidential Tele Forum with Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. (The other candidates were invited to participate, but declined because of scheduling conflicts, said Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots.) Each candidate had 10 minutes to respond to questions from local Tea Party coordinators. After the question-and-answer portion, the call organizers asked listeners to vote for one candidate as their preferred nominee.

About 23,000 Tea Party activists joined the call and a significant portion of them voted in the straw poll, according to a news release. Of those who voted, 31 percent selected Newt Gingrich as their No. 1, 28 percent selected Michele Bachmann, 20 percent selected Mitt Romney and 16 percent selected Rick Santorum. The three non-participating candidates polled very poorly: Ron Paul garnered 3 percent of the vote, Rick Perry 2 percent and Jon Huntsman 0.3 percent.

Activists also identified their enthusiasm levels for each candidate:

True to the mission of the Tea Party Patriots, the call emphasized questions of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets. The candidates clearly laid out their plans to repeal Obamacare, balance the federal budget, gut budget gimmicks, reduce regulation, reform the big three entitlement programs, eliminate crony capitalism, achieve tax reform and audit the Fed.

I listened in on the call last night and revisited my recorded audio again this morning in light of the results. Predictably, all of the candidates sounded their most conservative in this particular setting, but, both last night and this morning, I surprised myself by finding Mitt Romney the most impressive. He truly answered every question he was asked — no #dodges whatsoever.

And, at the end of the 10-minute segment, he delivered this inspired quote, which I found particularly compelling:

I believe that what makes America the most powerful nation in the history of the earth is that the Founders crafted a constitution that gives to individuals not only their political right to choose who will represent them in government, but also their economic right to choose their course in life. Right now we’ve got a president that wants to turn America into an entitlement society, where government takes from some to give to others, where government takes over certain enterprises and tries to guide the winners and losers of their choosing. My view is, the right course for America is to heed to the principles upon which we were based and remain as a merit society. … We therefore have a choice: Are we going to be an entitlement nation? … Or are we going to be a merit and opportunity nation?

Now, I’m kind of curious as to what the Tea Party activists heard that made them choose Newt Gingrich as their No. 1.