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Straw poll puts Iowa out in front

The attention brings some envy in Florida, where party leaders rejected holding their own polls.

By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published August 12, 2007

Republican presidential hopeful former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to supporters after being declared the winner of the Iowa Straw Poll.
[AP photo]

AMES, Iowa - An Arkansas watermelon purported to be the world's largest showed up in central Iowa Saturday. So did most of the Republican presidential candidates, Elvis, a ton of free barbecue, at least 92 of Mitt Romney's relatives, Terri Schiavo's brother and a barbershop quartet.

In an election cycle packed with artificial campaign events, the Iowa straw poll, which consumed the nation's pundits this weekend and was won as expected by Romney, may be the most overhyped. But given the tens of thousands of Republicans and hundreds of journalists gathered in Ames on Saturday, it was hard not to question why Florida party leaders opted against having their own pseudo-election.

"There are a lot of us disappointed that we didn't have a straw poll," said Hillsborough Republican state committeewoman Carol Carter. "Think of the attention we would have gotten from the national press."

Just a week ago, Florida Democrats rejected a proposal to hold an October presidential straw poll, which is basically an opportunity for ardent party activists to hold an officially meaningless vote on their preferred candidate. The state GOP did the same thing early this year and instead will host in Orlando yet another televised presidential debate.

"A straw poll does have its public relations benefits ... but I would rather provide some type of event that in my opinion will provide more substantive value," said state Republican chairman Jim Greer, touting the party's "Presidency IV" weekend Oct. 20-21, where presidential candidates will address 3,000 Florida Republicans one day and debate the next.

With a Jan. 29 presidential primary, nobody doubts that Florida will get plenty of early presidential attention. In fact, the Rudy Giuliani and Romney campaigns already are aggressively recruiting supporters to turn out for Presidency IV in Orlando.

But Iowa's carnivallike election Saturday put the state at the center of the political universe. Even with big-name Republicans Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson not on the straw poll ballot though "Fred Heads" were on hand recruiting supporters for his not-yet-announced campaign, the Iowa GOP had a giant spotlight trained on its voters.

While Romney's rock band entertained the thousands of supporters he bused to Iowa State University, throngs of kids bounced on Sam Brownback's blow-up carnival slides, abortion opponents hoisted photos of aborted fetuses and hundreds of people marched around the grounds with Ron Paul! Ron Paul! chants that heralded the long-shot libertarian Republican.

"This is really an organizational test and a test of whether your message is resonating enough so you can move on in the caucus process," said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who boasted of having the only air-conditioned tent for supporters on the 95-degree afternoon.

Romney won the straw poll with 31.5 percent of the vote, which was pretty much a foregone conclusion. He spent millions on TV ads, mailers, phone banks and the $35 tickets required for each voter.

The real competition was for second place, which went to former Arkansas Gov, Mike Huckabee, who received 18.1 percent of the vote. Brownback finished third with 15.3 percent.

In a hint of the potential challenges facing Romney, he faced a harsh attack from critics working the straw poll crowd.

"We strongly believe that Jesus Christ, if he were alive in the flesh in this time and voted, would NEVER vote for Mitt Romney under any circumstances. Mitt Romney represents Mormonism, which is counterfeit Christianity, a cult," said a flier from a group identifying itself as U.S. Christians for Truth, which also discounted the "family values" of Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, McCain and Thompson.

In the 28 years since Iowa started its Republican straw poll, it has been effective at weeding out struggling candidates. The result this year means some candidates most Americans don't even know may not be around for long. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, for instance, had said he needed to come in at least second, but finished sixth.

Now comes the game of political spin, with journalists and campaign officials deciding which candidates performed better or worse than they should. No one has more sway on that front than David Yepsen, the Des Moines Register's veteran political writer.

"The setting of conventional wisdom is a deep and serious ritual of the temple and there must be much libation and expense account dinners before such levels of insight can be achieved," Yepsen quipped to last week.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at or (727) 893-8241.

Fast Facts:

Straw poll results

1. Mitt Romney, 4,516 votes, 31.5 percent

2. Mike Huckabee, 2,587 votes, 18.1 percent

3. Sen. Sam Brownback 2,192 votes, 15.3 percent

4. Tom Tancredo, 1,961 votes, 13.7 percent

5. Ron Paul, 1,305 votes, 9.1 percent

6. Tommy Thompson, 1,039 votes, 7.3 percent

7. Fred Thompson, 203 votes

8. Rudy Giuliani, 183 votes

9. Duncan Hunter, 174 votes

10. John McCain, 101 votes

11. John Cox, 41 votes

[Last modified August 12, 2007, 00:01:26]

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