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Romney backers paid the expenses of some to attend Tenn. poll

Going into last weekend's meeting of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, Governor Mitt Romney and his staff said they were expending no energy on and had only fleeting interest in a straw poll that would assess the potential 2008 presidential contenders.

Even after he finished a surprise second in Memphis, behind a Tennessee native son, Senator Bill Frist, Romney was modest, declaring: ''I really don't read into a straw poll very much, certainly not at this point. This is, what, three years away from the '08 race?"

It turns out not all his supporters had a similarly distanced view.

Roughly 200 Romney backers camped out at the Marriott hotel in Memphis, and some had all expenses paid. One of the financiers was John Kingston, general counsel of AMG Inc., a Beverly investment management firm. AMG is run by Sean Healey, the husband of Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, Romney's most prominent ally.

''If only we could have had more time," said David French, a Tennessee lawyer and Kingston classmate at Harvard Law School who spearheaded the effort. ''I don't know that we could have beaten Frist, but we could have done even better."

Romney supporters were not alone in organizing for the meeting. Frist, the Senate majority leader, bused in dozens of supporters to ensure a strong showing. He succeeded, garnering 37 percent of the vote. The next closest was Romney, albeit distantly at 14 percent.

Nancy French, who runs the pro-Romney website, initially told an Associated Press reporter all Romney supporters paid their own way. Later, after a student attending the conference told the same reporter French and her husband had paid travel expenses for him and four friends, French confirmed her involvement.

She said she, her husband, and Kingston had paid for supporters who could not afford the registration fee and hotel expenses.

Kurt Keilhacker, a California venture capitalist and Kingston associate, said he also provided money and helped French raise funds.

Kingston did not return phone messages left at his office.

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