St. Petersburg straw poll votes were cast with cash

By DAVID DeCAMP, Times Staff Writer
Published November 29, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG -- Mitt Romney bought himself a victory in the straw poll for Republicans at a rain-shortened barbecue in Vinoy Park.

Romney got 893 votes, besting second-place Ron Paul's 534 -- despite Paul's shuttling in supporters on a rented trolley and shuttle. The campaign had a plane sporting pro-Paul slogans and a boat touting him, too.

In fact, Paul supporters dominated the crowd, which reached an estimated 1,000 people. Tickets for votes cost $20 each.

So how did Romney do it?

"I voted 20 times," Derek Gyongzois, 38, of St. Petersburg exclaimed after casting ballots.

He said he works as a volunteer for the Romney campaign (and begged a reporter not to print his 20-vote tally). Did he buy the tickets?

"I don't have that kind of money," Gyongzois said.

He wasn't the only person voting more than once. Paul supporter Mike Wagner, 57, of St. Petersburg: "This thing is rigged."

Before rain cut short the event, Paul supporters were voting multiple times, too.

"This is the best election money can buy, anywhere," said Pinellas County GOP chairman Tony DiMatteo, a Rudy Giuliani supporter. Giuliani received 39 votes, followed by Mike Huckabee's 37 and Fred Thompson's 21. John McCain had 12; Duncan Hunter, 4, Alan Keyes, 2; and Tom Tancredo, 1.

Romney takes a hit

Mitt Romney played in an organized flag football game at Flora Wylie Park in St. Petersburg with his five sons, staffers, supporters and the media.

Romney laced up his Mizuno running shoes and played for 10 to 15 minutes. Teammates included former state Republican chairman Al Cardenas and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. They all got pretty sweaty.

"My son Matt tackled me," Romney said. "But fortunately he didn't throw me to the ground and make me eat grass."

McCain meets teens

Sen. John McCain greeted supporters at the Parkshore Grill in St. Petersburg before the debate. A good portion of the crowd included high school students invited by the McCain campaign.

Devin Watson, a junior at Northside Christian School, said she became aware of McCain when she saw him as a guest on The Daily Show.

Kevin Burkett, a sophomore at Northside, said he likes McCain's "prowar stance" and the fact that he's a veteran.

"I think it's cowardly to cut and run," Burkett said.

McCain told the teenagers that if they don't like the way the country's run they should become politically active.

Rally stays peaceful

A mishmash of activists gathered in St. Petersburg's Pioneer Park, calling for political change and participating in a straw poll. The crowd included members of 30 organizations, including the Democratic Party from Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, Veterans for Peace, the Florida Green Party, the Libertarian Club of Pinellas and the South St. Petersburg Democratic Club.

So who won? Ron Paul, whose supporters arrived in buses, crushed the field. He took 240 of the 322 votes cast. Dennis Kucinich was the closest competitor, at 26.

Down the street, more than 100 homeless men and women and their supporters rallied across from the Mahaffey Theater. Later, nearly 400 people marched down First Street S carrying placards with messages such as "Jesus was homeless, too" and "Ron Paul is my homie."

The homeless and their advocates, who had been rallying outside the Mahaffey since Sunday night, had predicted a showdown with police. But that confrontation never materialized.

Instant gratification department

According to a survey of Republican voters who watched last night's CNN/YouTube debate, the winner was ... Mike Huckabee.

The InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research/Florida Chamber of Commerce survey, in which voters participated by calling into a toll-free phone line, gathered opinions from 341 GOP voters. The margin of error is 5.25 percent. Here are the results:

Huckabee: 44%; Giuliani: 18%; Romney: 13%; McCain: 10%; Thompson: 5%; Paul: 4%; Tancredo: 1%; no winner: 5%

DNC cancels debate

The Democratic National Committee has canceled a Dec. 10 presidential debate in Los Angeles because of a potential strike by CBS news writers.

The debate, which was to be televised by CBS, faced uncertainty after the network's news writers voted to authorize the Writers Guild of America to call a strike. After that vote, the major Democratic presidential contenders announced they would not participate in the debate if the labor dispute was not resolved.

Times staff writers Jennifer Liberto, Cristina Silva and Janet Zink contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.