Saturday, August 11, 2007

Romney wins Iowa Republican straw poll

Romney wins Iowa Republican straw poll
By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

AMES, Iowa (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney won the first test of the 2008 White House race on Saturday, using a big wallet and broad organization to muscle aside a field of lesser-known rivals in an informal Iowa straw poll.

Romney won 31 percent of the votes cast in the nonbinding mock election, a traditional early gauge of support in the state that holds the first nominating contest leading up to the November 2008 election.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee finished second with 18 percent of the 14,302 votes cast -- a smaller turnout than the approximately 24,000 who voted in the last straw poll in 1999.

Romney was a heavy favorite after the other top three national Republican candidates -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson -- skipped the poll to save money. Their names remained on the ballot.

In their absence a half-dozen second-tier candidates battled for the chance to finish second and perhaps vault into contention, and Huckabee won that contest by appealing to Iowa's large bloc of social conservatives.

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback finished third with 15 percent, and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo finished fourth with 13.7 percent in the poll, which could force some of the weaker candidates out of the race and give the winner at least a temporary shot of momentum.

The area around the Iowa State University basketball arena, where the poll was held, turned into a political carnival for the day-long voting, with campaigns erecting tents and play areas for kids and enticing supporters with free food and entertainment.

"We're going to send a message to the entire nation that we want to see a Washington that can actually get the job done," Romney told supporters, many wearing yellow "Team Mitt" T-shirts.


Romney, who leads opinion polls in Iowa and is one of the top fundraisers in the Republican field, showed his financial and organizational muscle during the poll.

His campaign area was the most elaborate and included a rock climbing wall, play areas for kids and a vast tent for shade from the brutally hot sun. Buses carrying Romney supporters from around the state rolled into the poll grounds all morning.

Any Iowa resident at least 18 years old and with a valid ID, regardless of party, could vote in the poll, which was a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party.

A ticket cost $35, and campaigns paid the bill for as many supporters as they could afford. Romney's rivals said they could not compete with his ability to spend millions to win the poll.

"I'm not the best-funded candidate in America. I can't buy you, I don't have the money," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told the Ames crowd. "I can't even rent you."

The results were delayed more than an hour after officials had to recount about 1,500 ballots on one malfunctioning machine, a party spokeswoman said.

Brownback, Huckabee and Tancredo had battled Romney for conservative support in Iowa over the last few weeks, questioning Romney's recent emergence as an opponent of abortion rights.

"The people of Iowa know that elections and the future of our country are based on principles, not on personalities," Brownback said.

For the biggest losers, the poll often means a quick exit. In 1999, four Republicans dropped out of the race within weeks of losing the straw poll to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush as he started his road to the White House.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson finished sixth after saying anything less than a top two finish would end his campaign. Several other candidates faced similar decisions.