Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney scored the first big voting victory in the battle for the GOP nomination at the non-binding Iowa Republican Party straw poll in Ames, Iowa on Saturday.
Romney scored 31.5 percent of the vote, with former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., coming in second with 18.1 percent, and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., placing a close third with 15.3 percent.
Romney's victory was never in serious doubt. His campaign has invested millions of dollars in television advertising and organization in Iowa, and his top-tier competitors for the nomination -- Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and the yet declared Fred Thompson -- didn't compete in the straw poll.
The lack of tough competition at the front of the pack may have somewhat lessened the overall impact of the straw poll. However, the poll still served as a test of organizational (and financial) strength among those Republicans competing and the first big step on the road to the crucial Iowa caucuses and on to the nomination.
Romney's first-place showing also allows him to grab the national spotlight -- if only for a brief moment -- which his campaign hopes will further introduce him to Republicans nationwide and help bring additional press coverage, fundraising successes and bump up his national poll numbers, which have shown a significantly lower level of support than he garners in the important early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Most significantly, the Republican Party appears to continue to suffer from dampened enthusiasm and something far less than full satisfaction with its slate of candidates. Roughly 14,300 votes were cast in today's straw poll, which is far fewer than the nearly 24,000 cast in the last competitive Iowa straw poll in 1999, when George W. Bush emerged victorious.
It is also far off the mark of the roughly 30,000 to 40,000 votes Iowa Republican officials had anticipated. The low turnout will likely aid the McCain, Giuliani, and Fred Thompson campaigns in their expected effort to dismiss the results as insignificant.
"We are fully committed to competing successfully in the Iowa caucuses, and we look forward to continuing to campaign aggressively in the Hawkeye State," said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis in a written statement.
Giuliani's campaign suggested the straw poll did little to dislodge the former New York mayor as the Republican frontrunner.
"After tonight's straw poll Rudy Giuliani continues to be the candidate best-positioned to win the Republican nomination and the only candidate in the race who can beat the Democrats in 2008," Giuliani campaign manager Michael DuHaime said.
Huckabee's second-place showing likely ensures a continued battle with Romney for the support of social conservatives -- a key Republican caucus voting bloc -- in this key kickoff state.
"For us to finish second, for all intents and purposes, we won the Iowa straw poll. This is David and Goliath and one smooth stone," said Huckabee.
Brownback tried to paint his third-place showing as cause for celebration and momentum for his campaign
"For running no advertising, no television, no radio, and to come in close to second and in third place -- that is fabulous and a great tribute to this campaign," he told supporters after the results were announced.
All eyes now turn to the second-tier candidates, who did not do as well in the straw poll as they had hoped.