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.
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, R-Wisc., had said that the straw poll is a "must-win" event for his candidacy and that he would likely not be able to continue if he didn't come in first or second place. His sixth place showing doesn't bode well for his future as a presidential candidate.
"It will be next to impossible for us to continue," said Thompson adviser Steve Grubbs, who indicated an announcement is likely to come in the next day or two.
This event has a history of winnowing the field of Republicans who go on to compete in the January caucuses. In 1999, just two days after a poor showing at the straw poll, Lamar Alexander ended his campaign. Lackluster straw poll performances also played a role in Dan Quayle and Elizabeth Dole dropping out of the GOP race.
The carnival atmosphere that sometimes seems to surround presidential politics was in full force as the campaigns provided entertainment, barbecue lunches, and activities for their supporters to enjoy.
The entry fee to partake in the straw poll was $35 per person, a cost usually picked up by the campaigns. The Romney and Brownback campaigns also poured money into renting buses to drive their supporters to Ames.
The full cost associated with securing a victory (charter buses, tickets, food, entertainment, etc.) will not be known until Oct. 15, when the Romney campaign will file its quarterly financial reports. In a bit of his usual self-mocking humor, Huckabee said his campaign didn't have enough money to even rent some supporters for the day.
Earlier in the afternoon, each candidate took to the main stage inside the Hilton Coliseum on Iowa State University's campus to address supporters and activists for 20 minutes and deliver some version of his stump speech.
Romney was the only candidate to appear in more casual dress, without a jacket and in a short-sleeved collared golf shirt. He painted himself as a candidate of change.
"Change begins in Iowa, and change begins today. If there ever has been a time that needed change in Washington, it is now," Romney said.
He went on to praise President Bush for keeping Americans safe for the last six years, in a careful balancing act of presenting an outside-the-Beltway image disconnected from the unpopular president and the Iraq war while still showing some support and affection for President Bush to avoid offending base Republican Party activists.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, made his appeal to end the United States' involvement in Iraq to a sea of supporters who have been some of the most vocal and energized of the day. Paul challenged his supporters to show that his campaign is more than just online support and urged them to convert that support into actual votes. Rep. Paul's fifth-place showing demonstrated his supporters were unable to meet that challenge.
The Ames straw poll serves as a party fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party, which expected to raise roughly $1 million for its coffers.
Matt Stuart, Z. Byron Wolf, Julia Bain, Kevin Chupka, Jake Tapper and Ron Claiborne contributed to this report.