What Iowa's Straw Poll Tells the G.O.P.

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney waves to supporters after being declared the winner of the Iowa Straw Poll, August 11, 2007, in Ames, Iowa.

If anyone was surprised by Mitt Romney's victory in the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, on Saturday, they must not have paid much attention to the race for the 2008 G.O.P. presidential nomination up to this point. The former Massachusetts Governor has maintained a lead ahead of his Republican opponents in the Iowa polls since mid-May. For most of the past year, Romney has targeted his resources in Iowa in an effort to transform himself from a little-known Governor of a liberal northeastern state with dubious conservative credentials into a candidate who can appeal to the social conservatives who dominate the G.O.P. electorate in Iowa.

In preparation for the straw poll, the Romney campaign shelled out an undisclosed amount that was still hundreds of thousands more than any other campaign spent. He was also, until recently, the only candidate to invest in television advertising throughout the state. And although he continues to lag behind former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Tennessee Senator and actor Fred Thompson, and Arizona Senator John McCain in national polls, the decision by all three of those leading candidates to skip the straw-poll left Romney unchallenged for the position of front-runner.

But if Romney's first-place finish was just the logical next step in his mechanical push toward January, the genuine surprise of the day was Mike Huckabee's runner-up placement. The former Arkansas governor captured 2,587 votes (18% of the total) to Romney's 4,516 (32%), and said after the results were announced that he had spent less than $150,000 on the effort. Unlike rival campaigns, the Huckabee operation rented no buses for the event, relying on supporters to transport themselves to Ames. And more remarkably, Huckabee's vote total was higher than the number of tickets his campaign had purchased. That means either some of his supporters paid the $35 cost on their own instead of — as most voters do — obtaining their tickets through the campaign, or Huckabee won the support of voters who attended the straw-poll on other campaigns' dimes.

Huckabee, with his engaging manner, gubernatorial experience, and credential as a Baptist minister, may now be able to force his way into the first tier. He appeared, beaming, in the media area at the end of the evening and for the first time in the campaign, he was mobbed by journalists. He now plans to present himself as the leading conservative alternative to the front-runners and may well gain support from frustrated social conservatives who have been displeased with their options among the front-runners.

Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, who had hoped to assume that mantle with a first- or second-place showing, was third with 2,192 votes (15%). Brownback made the greatest effort and investment in Iowa after Romney, renting buses and air-conditioning the tent in which he entertained his supporters in the 91 degree heat.

While the straw poll outcome has no direct impact on the Iowa delegates who will attend next summer's 2008 Republican national convention, candidates have in the past used high placements to demonstrate strength and build momentum in advance of the Iowa caucuses in January, as well as to force weaker competitors to reassess and, often, drop out of the race.

The also-rans on Saturday were Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo (1,961, 14%), followed by Texas Congressman Ron Paul (1,305, 9%), and former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson (1,039, 7%). A senior aide to Tommy Thompson hinted that he would leave the race in the coming days. Getting only a smattering of votes were Fred Thompson (203 votes) who has not formally entered the race, Giuliani (183), California Congressman Duncan Hunter (174), and, last, Arizona Senator John McCain (101), whose position in favor of comprehensive immigration reform has decimated his campaign in Iowa.

Giuliani, Thompson and McCain were listed on the ballot, but did not join the other candidates in giving speeches Saturday or in providing transportation, food, entertainment and tickets to attract supporters. Giuliani, followed within hours by McCain, withdrew from the competition in June, largely because they did not have the resources or organization to keep up with Romney.

Voting took place throughout the swelteringly hot day, while the candidates gave speeches inside the packed Iowa State basketball arena. Results were announced shortly after 8:30 pm CT. The quadrennial spectacle is unlike any other in American politics. Amidst giant tents, huge barbeque spreads, kids' rides and live music of all genres, supporters of the candidates were bused in from all over Iowa to cast votes. The proceeds from ticket sales go to the Iowa Republican Party, which stages the event as a fundraiser. It has, however, taken on a life of its own, becoming a test of organizational prowess and a game of chicken on spending and expectations in advance of the caucuses.

Romney may be pleased and relieved by his first-place showing in Ames, but the game remains the same for now. In early September, Fred Thompson is expected to officially join the race, which will turn the focus onto his ability to build on his poll numbers and buzz. Huckabee will get a second look as a potential force in the race. Giuliani will likely join Romney for the first time with television advertising in the key early voting votes of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. McCain plans to make a big push to prove he can come back from his precipitous fall and regain his place as a serious contender.

The politics of Iraq will only get more complicated for all of the Republican candidates. And the media and public scrutiny, which so far has barely singed Romney, Giuliani, Thompson or Huckabee, will likely produce one brush fire — or massive conflagration — after another. As hot as it was in Ames on Saturday, and as pleased as Romney and his staff are with their win, the challenges ahead for his candidacy will not be much easier because of his straw poll victory.