ames, iowa -- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney handily won a Republican presidential straw poll here on Saturday, while the dark-horse candidacy of ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee got a lift from a surprisingly strong second-place finish.
With three of the party's best-known White House contenders skipping the mock election, the Ames contest was a highly imperfect test of the Republican field. In Romney's case, the symbolic victory reflected, more than anything, his heavy spending in Iowa.
Still, the straw poll marked an important benchmark in the GOP race, underscoring Romney's strength in the state that will launch the party's 2008 nomination race with its precinct caucuses, now slated for early January.
The contest drew 14,302 voters to the Iowa State University basketball arena here. It was a sharp drop from the 23,685 who cast ballots eight years ago in the Ames straw poll that affirmed George W. Bush's lead in his first run for the presidency.
Romney led with 32% of the votes, followed by Huckabee, who won 18%. Finishing third was Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas with 15%. In fourth place was Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who has made the fight against illegal immigration his campaign centerpiece. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was fifth.
The results appeared likely to end the campaign of former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, who finished sixth. He had vowed to drop out of the race if he fell short of second place in Ames.
Skipping the event and sapping its significance were former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who is on the verge of joining the race.
For Romney, the straw poll at minimum demonstrated organizational might that could serve him well in the caucuses. Advisors declined to say how much Romney spent to lure supporters to Ames, but it clearly eclipsed efforts by rival campaigns.
"They're by far the most aggressive, and have been for the longest time," said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party.
Romney's extensive TV advertising in Iowa has fueled his rise to the lead in Republican polls here, as it has in New Hampshire, but he still trails Giuliani, Fred Thompson and McCain in national GOP surveys. The names of all three no-shows appeared on the Ames ballot, and each picked up only a small number of votes.
Also faring poorly was Rep. Duncan Hunter of El Cajon.
The straw poll, a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party, drew just over 30,000 spectators to the basketball arena and the vast GOP festival outside, according to Republican leaders. They had projected 40,000.
In back-to-back speeches, eight presidential candidates played to the crowd's conservative leanings. Common themes were a strong military, fiscal discipline, opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and a tough stance on illegal immigration.
In a rare nod to President Bush, whose unpopularity has been troublesome for Republican candidates, Romney praised the administration's record on terrorism.
"I know it's gotten popular as of late for a lot of people in the media and other places to be critical of the president," Romney said. "There's no one that's perfect. But let's not forget at least one thing, and that is he has kept us safe these last six years."
But Romney also said the U.S. must give its troops "the equipment they need" and "the care they deserve when they come home" -- an echo of Bush critics who say the president has failed on both counts. Romney also pledged change in Washington, saying he would stop partisan bickering.
He also called himself "firmly pro-life," but rivals still needled him for backing abortion rights before his run for the presidency.
"I didn't become pro-life on the road to Des Moines," Tommy Thompson said.
Hope for Huckabee
Huckabee also jabbed Romney, alluding to his lavish spending on the straw poll. "I can't buy you," Huckabee told the crowd. "I don't have the money."
Still, even Huckabee's cash-deprived campaign bought $35 straw-poll tickets for about 1,800 supporters and arranged rides to Ames by carpool if not by chartered bus. "If you need a ticket, we'll be sure you get one," he told a crowd outside the arena.
For Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist preacher known for shedding more than 110 pounds on a diet, the results offered a new chance to break out of the race's lower tier -- still an enormously steep climb.
"We go out on the surge of this, and we try to raise a lot of money," he said.
The results, he said, showed that Iowans admired his experience as a governor and his profile as a "different kind of Republican . . . not a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street."
Drawing some of the biggest roars of cheers in the arena was Tancredo. America's "cultural debasement," he told the crowd, could make the nation so weak that it would be "incapable of stopping the barbarians who are at the gate."