- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

Romney 2ndat GOP event

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — More than 20 months before any real votes are cast, Republican Senate leader Bill Frist of Tennessee won a straw poll yesterday of party activists choosing their early favorite in the 2008 White House race.

Mr. Frist, who packed the home-state crowd with supporters wearing blue “Frist is my leader” buttons, won nearly 37 percent of the 1,427 votes cast by delegates to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was second with 13 percent, while Sen. George Allen of Virginia finished tied for third with President Bush with 10 percent. Mr. Bush’s name was added to the ballot at the urging of Arizona Sen. John McCain.

The poll results, while meaning little in the long run, could give the top two finishers, Mr. Frist and Mr. Romney, a boost in recognition heading into the 2008 campaign.

The win for Mr. Frist followed a tough year in which he became the target of a federal probe of his stock sales and was criticized for his Senate leadership.

Mr. Frist and Mr. Romney were among six possible presidential candidates who spoke to the gathering of nearly 2,000 activists from 26 states in what served as an unofficial kickoff to the 2008 race. All registered delegates were eligible to vote in the poll, sponsored by the political tip sheet Hotline.

Other potential candidates who attended the convention were Mr. Allen, Mr. McCain, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Mr. McCain, in what rivals said was an acknowledgment he would not perform that well in the poll, told his supporters to write down Mr. Bush’s name. No vote totals were immediately announced for Mr. Brownback and Mr. Huckabee.

With Mr. Bush in his final term and Vice President Dick Cheney not running for president, the White House race in 2008 is wide open for Republicans and Democrats alike.

Public opinion polls show Mr. McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who did not attend the conference, are the most popular and well-known of the possible Republican White House contenders.

With Mr. Bush’s approval ratings at the lowest point of his presidency, Republicans are uneasy about the political climate heading into the 2006 congressional election in which their control of the House and Senate is up for grabs.

During their speeches over the weekend, the presidential hopefuls told the Republican faithful to focus on the core conservative principles they said helped bring the party to power.

Republicans, they said, needed to return to their core philosophy of limited government, low taxes, fiscal responsibility and conservative values.

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