Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won an easy and expected victory in a high-profile Iowa Republican Party Straw Poll on Saturday, claiming nearly twice as many votes as his nearest rival.
Romney had been expected to win the test because he spent millions of dollars and months of effort on an event that was skipped by two of his major rivals.
Romney scored 4,416 votes to outpace former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who had 2,587 votes. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback was third with 2,192 votes.
Announcement of the results was delayed for 90 minutes because a hand count was required on one of the 18 machines.
The biggest loser of the evening likely was former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who finished in 6th place with 1,039 votes. He had said repeatedly that if he didn’t finish in the top two his campaign was likely to end. He left the event before the results were announced, and there was no announcement from his campaign.
The missing big names got only a handful of votes.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee got 203 votes. He was on the ballot, although not an officially declared candidate.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani received 183 votes and Sen. John McCain of Arizona got 101.
Romney claimed the prize he had spent so much effort to win.
“The people of this great state have sent a message to the rest of the country,” said Romney. “Change starts in Iowa.”
Huckabee said his showing was impressive because he had little money to spend.
“You have taken a minimum amount of resources and made a maximum amount of gain,” Huckabee told backers.
The grounds around Iowa State University’s basketball arena took on a carnival atmosphere on the steamy day as candidates erected huge air-conditioned tents where they courted activists with food, prizes and plenty of rhetoric.
The National Rifle Association, anti-abortion groups and other organizations also were on hand to capture a slice of the spotlight.
Mary Tiffany, spokesman for the state Republican Party, said about 40,000 people were expected at an event that could raise more than $1 million for the party. For their $35 ticket — and an ID proving they were Iowans — activists could cast a ballot throughout the day for their favorite presidential candidate.
Prelude to the caucuses
Candidates consider the straw poll a vital chance to demonstrate support that could help them this winter when Iowans hold precinct caucuses, an event that leads off the presidential nominating process.
For some candidates, a poor showing could prompt them to drop out of the race.
The scale of the spectacle was so immense — event organizers planned for the arrival of 375 buses — that even Iowa Democratic Chairman Scott Brennan decided to take a look. State Democrats don’t hold anything similar, arguing the event is more about raising money than selecting candidates.
McCain defends his absense
McCain and Giuliani opted to skip the event, but their names were on the ballot.
McCain, campaigning in Milton, N.H., called the straw poll “a great way to raise money for the Iowa Republican Party” and said he doesn’t criticize it.
“But I think I can do my campaign and me personally better by being here in New Hampshire, talking to people, having the town hall meetings, and responding to their questions and concerns,” he said.
Voting security was tight. Before voting, activists had to show ID and tickets, both of which were scanned to ensure they hadn’t been used before. Stealing a page from the Iraqis, those casting ballots dipped their thumbs in purplish indelible ink to make sure they couldn’t vote again.