- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2007

CLIVE, Iowa — When the dust clears from this weekend’s Iowa Republican Party presidential straw poll, Mike Huckabee expects not only to be still standing, but to be on top of a winnowed field of conservatives.

The former Arkansas governor says it could be the break he is looking for, and expects that by the time Iowa holds its first-in-the-nation caucuses, Rudolph W. Giuliani will have faded there and he will be sparring with Mitt Romney for the victory.

“You see candidates who have been sitting at the top beginning to either stagnate or slide backward, you see candidates, frankly like me, that are beginning to gain traction and move forward,” Mr. Huckabee said in an interview yesterday on his campaign bus. “This weekend will be somewhat of a winnowing process. Out of nine candidates, I think we’ll be down to maybe five by the time we get [to the caucuses].”

By then, he said, “I’ll be surprised if Giuliani is at the top of the position. I think there’s a good chance I’ll be fighting for the top slot by then because, if we do what I think we’ll do Saturday, I think we’ll finally have that breakthrough.”

The straw poll held in Ames is the first major test of whether candidates can translate money, message and name-recognition into voters.

This year, with Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Mr. Giuliani opting not to take part and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney apparently poised for a victory, the key test will be the race for the No. 2 spot.

This week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Mr. Huckabee deserves to be considered a top-tier candidate, while a National Journal poll of 76 Republican political insiders released today found that 46 percent rated Mr. Huckabee the most underrated candidate in their field.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Giuliani, a former mayor of New York, know they still have something at stake this weekend. Each of them spent the early part of the week campaigning in Iowa after Sunday’s debate in Des Moines.

“Anyone deciding not to participate in the straw poll will be disappointed by that decision,” Mr. Romney said this week. “I think that’s in part why you’re seeing so much activity, even from those who officially are not participating. They’re still doing their best, just like I would if I were in their shoes.”

Mr. Giuliani on Monday explained that, even though he formed an exploratory committee earlier than many of his fellow candidates, he didn’t start until too late: “We thought we were too far behind to catch up.”

But rival campaigns say the two men saw their campaigns there collapsing.

Giuliani and McCain — the reason they pulled out wasn’t because they were afraid of taking second and third, they were afraid of taking fifth and sixth,” said Bob Vander Plaats, Iowa chairman for Mr. Huckabee.

Opinion polls give them good reason to be fearful.

A Victory Enterprises survey taken in late July found that both men dropped from more than 20 percent in last year’s poll to single digits, while Mr. Romney has gone from 2.2 percent last year to 26.3 percent this year.

That same poll found Mr. Huckabee with 3.8 percent support, putting him seventh among announced candidates.

But an ABC News poll released Sunday put Mr. Huckabee third among those officially in the race, behind Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani.

The straw poll, however, measures the ability of candidates to turn support into voters. That means organization is critical — and the straw poll is a test of that.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson says he is in the best position to prove that this weekend. He is the only candidate who visited all 99 counties in the state, and his campaign says that if the straw poll can be won on the margins, attracting people who aren’t getting attention from other candidates, Mr. Thompson should do well.

For that matter, he has to. He has said he will consider dropping out if he doesn’t win or place second.

“We’re the only campaign that’s really drawn a line in the sand. We’ve said we expect to finish first or second in this race,” said Steve Grubbs, a strategist for Mr. Thompson’s campaign.

Not everyone is willing to stake himself to those promises.

“We want to do well, we think we’ve got a good chance of doing well, but I don’t look at it as a make-or-break,” said Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who is competing with Mr. Huckabee and the others for the mantle of the conservative candidate.

Others look for validation that they can translate an issue or Internet buzz into bodies, including Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Duncan Hunter of California and Ron Paul of Texas.

Iowa Republican Party officials said they expect 40,000 people for this year’s straw poll. In 2000, 23,685 votes were cast in the straw poll, which candidate George W. Bush won with 7,418 votes, or about 31 percent.

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