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Romney trounces GOP field in Iowa straw poll

Ex-governor tops 2d-tier candidates

Mitt Romney was jubilant after the Republican straw poll yesterday in Ames, Iowa. Romney's entire immediate family -- and a good share of his extended family -- was on hand to help. Mitt Romney was jubilant after the Republican straw poll yesterday in Ames, Iowa. Romney's entire immediate family -- and a good share of his extended family -- was on hand to help. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

AMES, Iowa -- Mitt Romney won the Republican straw poll here decisively last night, delivering 31.5 percent of votes cast and solidifying his position as the man to beat in Iowa, the state that holds the critical first-in-the- nation caucuses.

The former Massachusetts governor was the only major candidate who participated in the straw poll and greatly outspent his competitors, but last night Romney cast it as a clear victory.

"We get started here, this is really the big kick-off for my campaign," an ebullient Romney told reporters. He said the win was politically significant despite the absence of the other top-tier candidates. "The guys who decided not to play here, they'd have played if they thought they'd have won."

Finishing second with 18.1 percent of the vote was former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, whose candidacy might be reinvigorated by his showing. Last night, he said he was ecstatic.

"For us to do this, spending a dime for every $100 bill the others spent, is an amazing victory," he said.

The straw poll tends to narrow the Republican field, and yesterday's contest might be the death knell for at least one campaign. Tommy Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin, finished in sixth place with 1.4 percent; he had said that he would end his candidacy if he did not finish second.

Huckabee's performance was a disappointment for Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who had hoped to become the conservative Republicans would consolidate behind. Brownback finished in third place, with 15.3 percent of the vote.

Representative Tom Tancredo came in fourth with 13.7 percent of the vote; US Representative Ron Paul of Texas got 9.1 percent; former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson 1.4 percent; former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani 1.3 percent; US Representative Duncan Hunter 1.2 percent; Senator John McCain of Arizona and Chicago businessman John Cox got less than 1 percent.

About 14,300 votes were cast in the straw poll, which is usually seen as an early test of organizational strength in the state.

In an attempt to stake his claim as the choice of social conservatives, Brownback has been assailing the credibility of Romney, who in 2005 went from being effectively supporting abortion rights to a foe of abortion, as a social conservative.

The straw poll's political significance was somewhat diminished this year because McCain and Rudy Giuliani sat out the contest, as did Fred Thompson, who is expected to enter the race in September. It remains to be seen whether their decision gave Romney a crucial head start in the Iowa caucuses.

Far from a mere balloting exercise, the straw poll is a daylong political extravaganza of barbecue, live rock music, and fiery political speeches, which culminates with a vote that typically resets the Republican field.

The 95-degree temperature did not seem to faze the voters, who began gathering at the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University midmorning and spent the better part of the day fanning themselves, talking politics, eating, and absorbing the spectacle.

"It's a political carnival," said Jason Gordon, 32, of Davenport, who with his wife and two young sons rode three hours on a bus to get to the straw poll -- not just to vote, but for the children's entertainment and the experience. "It's got everything, it's interesting, there's lots to see and do and hear."

Romney, who has lent his campaign $9 million, far outspent his second-tier rivals in preparation for the straw poll, shelling out more than $1 million for television ads in the state since the beginning of the year and paying dozens of Iowa volunteers $500 to $1,000 a month to build his campaign.

Yesterday his campaign boasted the most central location outside the Hilton Coliseum, just outside the entrance to the convention center. His supporters emerged in waves from rented buses rolling in from the four corners of the state. Many of them wore bright yellow campaign T-shirts the campaign had printed just for the straw poll.

Bands played rock music on a high-tech stage with a megascreen to one side, and a playground for children that featured a giant inflatable slide, a gargantuan bouncy playhouse, and even a rock-climbing wall.

"Look at the size of it!" marveled Leon Mosley, cochairman of the state GOP, surveying Romney's setup. "That's huge!"

Not everyone was impressed with Romney's outsize spending. Huckabee, whose campaign has struggled financially, entreated the crowd in his major speech of the day to cast their votes based on merit, not money.

"I can't buy you," he said. "I can't even rent you."

Romney's entire immediate family -- and a good share of his extended family -- was on hand to help. His wife, Ann, and five sons and their families appeared with him several times during the day, often taking over the microphone. And more than 100 relatives traveled from across the country to help. At a speech in the morning, he joked that Ames had put up signs that said, "Caution: Romneys crossing."

But Romney certainly was not the only show in town. Supporters of Paul seemed to be everywhere, waving signs and chanting as they walked, "Who's the man? Ron Paul! Who you gonna call? Ron Paul!" A black sign leading to his tent displayed a series of quotations: "Make yourselves sheep, and the wolves will eat you. -- Ben Franklin."

At Huckabee's tents, people wearing "I Like Mike" T-shirts waited in line for cotton candy, while Chris Caldwell of Little Rock, Ark., used a machete to slice giant watermelons from Hope, Ark., Huckabee's birthplace, sending red juice and seeds flying.

"It's an Arkansas toothpick," he said, holding up his knife with a smile.

Hundreds took refuge from the heat under Brownback's vast, dimly lit tent -- which had air conditioning -- to hear the senator and an array of conservative speakers, including Bobby Schindler, brother of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose end-of-life case became a political showdown.

Around the tents, vendors hawked T-shirts and political children's books; advocacy groups including the National Rifle Association and the Iowa Right to Life Committee passed out literature; one group, mypoliticalpets.com, invited voters to register their pets to "vote" on its website.

In the early afternoon, thousands gathered in the coliseum to hear the candidates take turns speaking.

"I want to welcome you to the Iowa edition of American Idol," said Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host and master of ceremonies yesterday.

The candidates' speeches played well to the socially conservative crowd, focusing on ending illegal immigration and abortion, reducing the size of government and, to a lesser degree, contending with terrorism. Again and again, those gathered roared approval as candidates promised to secure the US borders, prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants or, in the case of Tancredo, deporting them all.

Brownback said 45 million children had been killed since the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in America. He promised to work to end abortion and "to encourage faith, not litigate it out of existence."

As his fans waved baseball "mitts" made of red foam, Romney gave a somewhat punchier version of his stump speech, weaving in an extra helping of jokes and patriotic anecdotes while promising to end illegal immigration, refuse amnesty to those already in the country, to "promote a culture of life" and to help clean up the "moral pollution" that he said had damaged the social environment for children. At the same time, he sounded relentlessly upbeat about the future.

"The nature of the American people is so positive, and so overwhelmingly focused upon the future that I have no doubt the future will be even brighter than the past," he said.

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