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Iowa Republicans See Romney As Straw Poll Winner

By Reid Wilson

With a week to go before the Iowa Republican Party's critical straw poll, an informal survey of Iowa Republican Party leaders, conducted by Real Clear Politics, shows high expectations for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Those high expectations of local party leaders could be a huge benefit, if Romney meets them, or a painful negative should he fail. The numbers, and the expectations for all the candidates, show a race that could dramatically change on Saturday.

Of the 30 Republican officials - representing county parties around the state and the party's Central Committee - who responded to the survey via email, 93% picked Romney to win in Ames. Many saw his commitment to the state as indicative that he will prevail next Saturday; the same percentage said it was Romney whose campaign had the most visible presence in their locations.

Poll participants were asked to predict the top five finishers at the straw poll, and answers were ranked in order. A first place vote was worth five points, a second place vote was worth four points, et cetera, meaning 150 points was the maximum one candidate could achieve.

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Romney scored 144 points out of 150 possible. Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who, according to an ABC/WP poll of Iowa voters, is the top choice of 5% of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers, finished a distant second, with 59 points. Tancredo, though, led national front-runners Rudy Giuliani, who finished third with 55 points, and Fred Thompson, who finished sixth with 41 points. Neither Giuliani nor Thompson are actively participating in the straw poll.

Tancredo's second-place finish, if that lead holds on Saturday, would be a massive coup for a campaign driven largely by the congressman's views on illegal immigration and the war on terror. 20% of respondents, a slight plurality, said Tancredo had the most to gain at the poll, and that his performance would improve his standings in national polls. Aside from Romney, Tancredo was the only candidate to receive any first-place votes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian in the truest sense of the word, did not receive a single vote in the poll. The lone anti-war voice on the GOP stage, Paul would be unlikely to earn support, or even notice, of people involved in Republican circles enough to be an elected board member.

The most intriguing subplot leading up to the poll on Saturday has been an increasingly bitter feud between two candidates vying for the religious vote. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have for weeks accused the other of dirty campaign tactics, the latest incident being an email a Huckabee supporter sent to two Brownback supporters urging them to drop the senator, a Catholic, in favor of the governor, a Baptist minister. When Brownback's campaign complained to the press, Huckabee's manager urged Brownback to "stop whining."

The two face an uncertain future after Saturday's vote. Both are low on money, and both are counting on a voting bloc that, if divided, could see its influence over the GOP nomination wane. Iowa is home to more evangelical Christians than any state, proportionally, outside the South, and with a united bloc, either Huckabee or Brownback could cause the front-runners trouble. Taking either candidate's best score on all 30 ballots, their 72 points easily trumps any candidate but Romney. Divided, Huckabee finishes fourth, with 52 points, while Brownback's 42 points come in fifth.

Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, who has said he will drop out if he does not perform well in Iowa, is not expected by Iowa's Republican elite to rise to the top. If Thompson does come in seventh, at 32 points and behind Fred Thompson, his campaign may come to a premature close.

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But it was not Thompson who most respondents said had the most to lose come Saturday. Instead, Arizona Senator John McCain, once the front-runner, and Romney are seen as the two risking the most come the weekend, with 30% naming each when asked. McCain, who announced he would not participate in the event mere hours after Giuliani did, is the victim of an Iowa Republican electorate still furious with him for ignoring them in 2000 and again this year, as well as for what they perceive as his less-than-complete conservatism. McCain, said one respondent representative of many in the survey, "is not a loyal Republican."

Romney, though, is the front-runner with a strong potential upside and the steepest possible downside. The candidates' performance at yesterday's debate, broadcast as a special edition of ABC's "This Week," showed that others recognized Romney's front-runner status in Iowa as well. Romney defended himself from charges from Brownback, who accused the Massachusetts governor of failing to be completely pro-life.

Seeking to boost their own support while cutting Romney down, other candidates "have hinged their efforts into trying to tear us down," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. "A lot of analysts will watch and see if anybody has a kamikaze mission, so to speak, that's going to effect us."

Though Romney is widely viewed as the candidate poised to walk away with the straw poll and thought of as the strongest organizationally in Iowa, there is a danger that many of the voters he busses in from around the state may not intend to follow through on voting for him. "People are known to show up at the straw poll with a ticket paid for by candidate A, yet they vote for candidate B," wrote one respondent, recalling businessman Steve Forbes' 1999 campaign. Forbes "bussed in a lot more people than he got votes from."

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The candidates with the greatest potential, according to most, are those in the so-called second tier, candidates without the money to compete directly with Romney or Giuliani. In Ames, it could be a good day for several contestants near the back of the pack. "They have the opportunity to show strong support from activists and potentially gather momentum in other states," said Sioux County Republican chairman Mark Lundberg.

Respondents to the poll differed on candidates they support, but their views on who the opposition will be come 2008 could hardly have been more unified. All but two predicted that New York Senator Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, though two believed it would be either her or Illinois Senator Barack Obama. One respondent declined to guess, while another predicted the Democratic winner would be either Delaware Senator Joe Biden or former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

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Asked which candidate would be best able to defeat Clinton or whomever may be the eventual Democratic nominee, Iowa Republican leaders chose Giuliani, by a small 30% plurality, over Romney, who finished second with 23%.

As the straw poll draws near, pressure on candidates builds. Each campaign is operating at full speed to entice their voters to the polls. "We're working very hard every day making calls and trying to motivate our voters," said Brownback's Rob Wasinger. "We're putting an investment of staff and an investment of time there," said Jesse Benton, spokesman for Ron Paul.

Underscoring the importance of Ames, Benton responded to request for comment on his way to Iowa. Wasinger, Brownback's national campaign manager, has been in Ames since last week. They are but the first of what could be up to 40,000 visitors the sleepy college town hosts next week for what will be the most pivotal moment thus far in the Republican race.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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