MEMPHIS, Tenn. — And the winner is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
The climax of a three-day gathering of Republican activists from 37 states came Saturday evening in Memphis as Frist won an early test of strength for 2008 GOP presidential contenders.
Frist won 36.9 percent of the 1,427 ballots cast here by delegates to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
The shocker of the evening was that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney placed second, besting far better-known rivals Arizona Sen. John McCain and Virginia Sen. George Allen. Romney finished with 14 percent of the vote.
Third place was shared by Allen and President Bush, each of whom won 10.3 percent of the ballots cast. Bush, who of course is not eligible to run again for president, was the write-in candidate that McCain was pushing through the weekend.
The results of the GOP straw poll were announced live at 9pm Eastern Time on MSNBC’s Hardball.
"We're excited about the grassroots being here. We're excited about the energy," said Frist spokeswoman Amy Call, who then started high-fiving with other Frist aides.
Romney spoke to the Memphis gathering on Friday afternoon – the first of the contenders to address the gathering.
Nancy French, who said she writes political humor for a living and organized the Romney volunteer effort in Tennessee, told reporters that she and other volunteers had spent three weeks preparing for the Memphis event. “If we had twice that, we could have taken the whole thing,” an exuberant French told reporters.
Asked if she – like Romney – was a Mormon, French said, “No, I’m a Presbyterian. Everybody keeps coming over to me and saying, ‘Way to go, Sister French,’ and I’m – like – ‘thanks.’ I feel like I don’t know what to say.”
She said the Romney campaign had not called her to work on the Memphis event and that she and her husband had organized their own pro-Romney volunteer effort.
Meanwhile on Saturday in Livingston County, Mich., a fast-growing exurban county near Detroit, Romney won a straw poll of GOP activists, according to Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis who was in Memphis.
He told reporters that Romney had won 25 percent of the vote, McCain 18 percent, and Allen 17.5 percent. He estimated that about 400 people had taken part in the Michigan straw poll.
Romney’s father served as governor of Michigan in the 1960s.
The native son
In the hours before the winner was revealed, Frist, who seemed the odds-on favorite, native son, told reporters, “I really hope I do pretty well here…. This is my home state… The fact that we’re in Memphis, Tennessee – of course I’d like to do well.”
Frist enjoyed a home court advantage since about 40 percent of the delegates attending the event are from his home state.
Most of the attendees are from the South, but some came from as far away as Iowa and Ohio.
“A lot of grassroots people came in to vote specifically, so I think they should have the opportunity” to vote, “however they like, whether it is as a write in or for somebody who may be on” the ballot, said Frist.
This was a reference to an effort by Frist’s rival for the nomination, McCain to persuade the attendees to cast a write-in vote for the beleaguered President Bush in Saturday’s straw poll.
“We should all just keep our ambitions a distant second to standing with the president of the United States, our commander in chief," McCain said Friday night in his speech.
If it had been successful, the McCain write-in effort would have diluted the meaning of the straw poll and muddied a Frist victory. But there was some push-back to the McCain idea from delegates who wanted to show their early support for their favorite contender.
“I love President Bush,” said Linda Daves, vice chairwoman of the North Carolina Republican Party, but she questioned why anyone “would throw their vote away.” She said not voting for one of the 2008 hopefuls was “not a service to the party.”
Frist’s aides had portrayed the event as an important test of organizational ability, but also hedged their bets by telling reporters that Frist was from Nashville (200 miles away), and that Little Rock, home of Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, was closer to Memphis than Nashville was.
The man from Hope (Arkansas)
Huckabee made a powerful impression in his speech Saturday.
“Let the Democrats say what they will about the war on terrorism, I'd still rather fight the war in Baghdad than Boston any day of the week," the Arkansas governor declared.
Activists seemed on the edge of their seats during Huckabee's speech as the Baptist minister, speaking without notes, wove in his life story. All of the activists MSNBC’s David Shuster interviewed afterwards who’d never before seen Huckabee in person said they thought his address was the best of the contenders’ speeches in its style and delivery.
The Arkansas governor told reporters that it would be “disingenuous” to suggest the GOP presidential hopefuls weren’t trying to win the straw poll. "We look like complete fabricators" to insist that politicos and reporters came to Memphis to focus on the 2006 midterm elections, he said. Still, Huckabee insisted that he did not see this balloting as a referendum on his potential candidacy. But he joked, "If I do real well, I'm sure I'll say this is the most important thing that ever happened.”
Huckabee won 3.8 percent of teh vote and came in behind McCain.
'Not even an intra-squad scrimmage'
Allen, who campaigned in Memphis Friday and Saturday, had played down the significance of the straw poll.
“This is not even an intra-squad scrimmage,” he told reporters Friday. “This is a pick up game. … It really doesn’t matter.”
If energy and oratorical volume mattered, Allen brought far more to Saturday’s round of speech-making than did Frist.
“Good morning!” Allen boomed as he started his speech, and launched into a populist denunciation of Congress and what he called “a meddling nanny government.”
He railed against illegal immigration, shouting that “securing our borders is the first principle of immigration reform.” He got a whooping round of cheers when he said, “You do not reward illegal behavior with amnesty!”
He called for home-grown and domestically-based sources of energy -- “rather than having to worry about the whims of some Iranian mullah.” (He gave a populist pronunciation to the word EYE-ranian.)
Frist takes credit
In his speech a few hours later, Frist claimed credit for ending Senate Democrats’ filibusters of Bush’s judicial nominees, which had blocked ten of them in 2003 and 2004. Frist said Democrats dropped the filibusters after he threatened with the “nuclear option,” a Senate rules change.
“Because we acted, we are one step closer to an America where activist judges can’t seize Video: Sen. Frist wins GOP straw poll your private party and hand it off to a developer; because we acted, we are one step closer to an America where activist judges can’t declare that a 14-year old girl can go into a clinic and have an abortion without her parents’ consent, because we acted, we are one step closer to an America where activist judges can’t take it upon themselves to redefine the institution of marriage,” he told the crowd.
His speech was notable for its lack of references to Iraq, Iran, Americans’ dependence on foreign energy suppliers or an issue Frist had often made his signature issue in the past, the menace of avian flu. He did at very end of his speech say, “God bless our troops overseas.”
The straw poll was organized and the ballots counted by National Journal’s Hotline.
Not on the ballot were two Republican long-shot possibilities that have caused some chatter in recent months: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and anti-illegal immigration crusader, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
Tancredo has already made one exploratory trip to Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation caucuses in January of 2008.
A small cadre of Rice supporters was active at the Memphis event, passing out buttons and bumper stickers, doing media interviews, and protesting the absence of Rice’s name from the printed ballot.
But Hotline editor-in-chief Chuck Todd said the publication had chosen to list on the ballot only those would-be presidential hopefuls who had been invited to Memphis by the Republican organizers of the Memphis conclave.
Another prominent Republican, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was invited to speak at Memphis, but chose to pass up the event. It is not yet clear whether Giuliani will seek the 2008 nomination of his party but his name came up frequently in delegates’ discussions of the party’s chances in 2008.
MSNBC’s David Shuster contributed to this story
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