AMES, Iowa Mitt Romney won yesterday's Iowa Republican Party straw poll, but the best showing went to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose strong second-place finish gives him a much-needed boost going forward.
"When it got to be about the message, not about money, we were going to do well," Mr. Huckabee said, gleefully touting the fact that his showing came by spending a small fraction of what Mr. Romney spent.
Mr. Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, carried 31.5 percent of the 14,302 votes cast in the nonbinding poll, while Mr. Huckabee grabbed 18.1 percent. Third place went to Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas with 15.3 percent, and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado was fourth with 13.7 percent.
"This important victory sends a signal to grass-roots Republican activists across the country that we are working hard to earn their support and that we are ready to begin the work of strengthening our economy, our military and our families," Mr. Romney said.
With his resources and extensive campaign operation, Mr. Romney's victory was never in doubt. He is now well-positioned for Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses expected in January, the opening contest of the presidential-nominating season.
Rounding out the field yesterday were Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in fifth, followed by former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Chicago businessman John Cox.
Fred Thompson is still only contemplating a run, while Mr. McCain and Mr. Giuliani refused to participate officially in the straw poll. When Mr. McCain's poor showing was announced, the crowd cheered.
For Tommy Thompson the showing could be the end of his campaign. He put in a substantial amount of effort here and said several times leading up to yesterday's vote that he would probably have to drop out if he didn't finish first or second.
Steve Grubbs, a strategist for his campaign, said Mr. Thompson will make an announcement in the next few days, but, meanwhile, "It will be next-to-impossible to run a campaign," given the sixth-place showing.
Mr. Paul's supporters took their fifth-place finish as a sign they can compete.
"We're not just the Internet," they chanted before the results were announced. Mr. Paul has been fighting the perception he can raise money over the Internet but cannot turn out voters.
For Mr. Huckabee, whose fundraising has lagged far behind, the results are a much-needed shot in the arm.
He showed he could attract voters without spending a dime on paid advertising, and former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, who is supporting the campaign, said it could be a race-changing moment.
"He should be able to begin accumulating resources, which should help him in New Hampshire and South Carolina," Mr. Beasley said. "If he goes into South Carolina with money — Katie, bar the door."
For Mr. Romney, it was a mixed result. His victory was tempered by a very small turnout — organizers had predicted as many as 40,000 people would attend — and he won a smaller vote percentage than then-candidate George Bush took in 2000.
Mr. Tancredo had a solid performance, broadening his anti-illegal immigration message into a defense of U.S. culture and a strong position on freeing up the military to go after terrorists.
"The only rule of engagement I'm going to have in a Tancredo administration is, 'We win, you lose,' " he said.
He and Mr. Paul acted as consciences for the party, with Mr. Tancredo calling on Republicans to win a battle of cultures in the social debate, and Mr. Paul calling for a return to constitutional principles.
The straw poll was as much a community fair as a political event, which was probably necessary since it competed with the Iowa State Fair a half-hour's drive away in Des Moines.
The candidates each bought space and set up tents on the lawns surrounding the Hilton Coliseum to ply supporters and undecided voters with drinks, sandwiches and ice cream.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Brownback each had a moonbounce, inflatable slides and a rock-climbing wall. Tommy Thompson had a short miniature-golf course for the children, and Mr. Huckabee had a stage set up for his own band, Capitol Offense, for which he plays bass guitar.
Mr. Brownback tried to one-up the field by having an air-conditioned tent to combat temperatures nearing 100 degrees. Supporters of the Fair Tax, a plan to replace federal income taxes with a national sales tax, had a Ferris wheel.
The official speechmaking was saved for the coliseum. Each candidate had 15 minutes, and each tried to show his strength of support by flooding the space in front of the dais with cheering, sign-waving supporters.
Because of their absences, Mr. McCain and Mr. Giuliani were targets, both from those on the stage and from the groups outside.
"The road to the White House goes through Iowa, and I'm not skipping it," Mr. Brownback told the crowd.