Romney wins Iowa straw poll as expected, Huckabee second and Brownback third

Romney wins Iowa straw poll as expected, Huckabee second and Brownback third
AMES, Iowa (AP) - Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won an easy and expected victory in a high-profile Iowa Republican Party Straw Poll on Saturday, claiming nearly twice as many votes as his nearest rival.

Romney had been expected to win the test because he spent millions of dollars and months of effort on an event that was skipped by two of his major rivals.

Romney scored 4,416 votes to outpace former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who had 2,587 votes. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback was third with 2,192 votes.

Announcement of the results was delayed for 90 minutes because a hand count was required on one of the 18 machines.

The biggest loser of the evening likely was former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who finished in 6th place with 1,039 votes. He had said repeatedly that if he didn't finish in the top two his campaign was likely to end. He left the event before the results were announced, and there was no announcement from his campaign.

The missing big names got only a handful of votes.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee got 203 votes. He was on the ballot, although not an officially declared candidate.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani received 183 votes and Sen. John McCain of Arizona got 101.

As many as 40,000 Republicans joined Saturday for a high-profile straw poll featuring barbecue, music, speeches and a chance to winnow the GOP's field of presidential candidates.

The grounds around Iowa State University's basketball arena took on a carnival atmosphere on the steamy day as candidates erected huge air-conditioned tents where they courted activists with food, prizes and plenty of rhetoric.

The National Rifle Association, anti-abortion groups and other organizations also were on hand to capture a slice of the spotlight.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback matched each other with neighboring tents and catered barbecue for supporters bused in from throughout the state. Romney was joined by his wife, Ann, and their five sons.

"We've come to recognized that this is the heartland," Ann Romney told a sea of supporters clad in yellow "Team Mitt" shirts. "We are doing this as a family."

Across the grounds, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee served fruit and joined his pickup band - Capitol Offense - for some rocking numbers on the hot, humid day.

"We're going to play again this afternoon whether you want us to or not," said Huckabee, gripping his bass guitar. "The Bible says those that endure to the end shall be saved. We'll see how many of you last until later this afternoon."

Mary Tiffany, spokesman for the state Republican Party, said about 40,000 people were expected at an event that could raise more than $1 million for the party. For their $35 ticket - and an ID proving they were Iowans - activists could cast a ballot throughout the day for their favorite presidential candidate.

Candidates consider the straw poll a vital chance to demonstrate support that could help them this winter when Iowans hold precinct caucuses, an event that leads off the presidential nominating process.

For some candidates, a poor showing could prompt them to drop out of the race.

Although candidates often covered ticket costs and delivered many supporters to Ames, some people said they remained undecided.

Jessica Taylor, of Waterloo, was looking for a candidate. She sported a shirt saying "Christian, American, heterosexual, pro-gun, conservative. Any questions?"

"We're still open," she said. "We're looking at Huckabee."

The scale of the spectacle was so immense - event organizers planned for the arrival of 375 buses - that even Iowa Democratic Chairman Scott Brennan decided to take a look. State Democrats don't hold anything similar, arguing the event is more about raising money than selecting candidates.

"They don't really mean anything," said Brennan. "But they put on quite a show."

Romney, who has spent months campaigning in Iowa and organizing for the straw poll, is expected to win.

"We're going to send a message to the entire nation," said Romney.

Big-name rivals John McCain and Rudy Giuliani opted to skip the event, but their names were on the ballot. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, a likely candidate who will make his first trip to Iowa in less than a week, also will be on the ballot.

McCain, campaigning in Milton, N.H., called the straw poll "a great way to raise money for the Iowa Republican Party" and said he doesn't criticized it.

"But I think I can do my campaign and me personally better by being here in New Hampshire, talking to people, having the town hall meetings, and responding to their questions and concerns," he said.

Voting security has been tight. Before voting, activists must show ID and tickets, both of which were scanned to ensure they hadn't been used before. Stealing a page from the Iraqis, those casting ballots dipped their thumbs in purplish indelible ink to make sure they couldn't vote again.

State auditor David Vaudt was overseeing the count.

"I think we have probably one of the most secure voting areas that anyone has," said Vaudt.