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The Ames Aftermath: Lots of Excitement, Little Change

By Tom Bevan

Mitt Romney did what he needed to do yesterday, which was to come away from Ames with a decent-sized win. On Friday, I suggested a 10-point margin of victory was the minimum bar Romney needed to meet expectations, and he cleared that hurdle, winning by 13.4%.

There are caveats to Romney's win, of course: he threw millions of dollars at the event and competed against a weakened field that did not include Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, or John McCain. Still, at the end of the day Mitt Romney entered Ames with the most to lose - always a dangerous spot for politician to be in - and he exits the event having not lost a thing. Romney's win yesterday solidifies his standing as the front runner in Iowa heading into the final five and half month stretch.

The big surprise, of course, is Mike Huckabee. Yesterday was a do-or-die test for the former Arkansas Governor. He passed with flying colors, besting the better funded and better organized Sam Brownback for second place. Throughout the campaign thus far, the cash-strapped Huckabee has consistently outperformed in the debates and on the stump but hasn't seen the requisite gain in the polls most people expected. He now has a window of opportunity to leverage his strong finish in Ames and move his campaign from a shoe-string operation into a more formidable organization with the capability of mounting a serious run at the caucuses in January.

The big question mark coming out of Ames is Sam Brownback. He says yesterday's third place finish won him a ticket to the caucuses, but coming in behind Huckabee after breaking the bank at the straw poll was clearly a disappointment. Will Brownback continue? The answer to that question could have a significant impact on the final outcome in Iowa.

Obviously, the big loser is Tommy Thompson, whose sixth place finish should put the final nail in the coffin of his presidential ambitions this year. Despite his distinguished record as Wisconsin's chief executive and his reputation as an excellent retail politician, Thompson ran a lackluster campaign in which he often came off - at least on the national scene - as a bit of a buffoon. The other casualty of Ames is Congressman Duncan Hunter, who really has no reason or justification to continue after winning just 174 votes (1.2%) yesterday.

This will leave the GOP field pared down from nine candidates to seven in very short order, with the possibility of losing another candidate (Brownback) at some point in the future but also adding a candidate (Fred Thompson) in just a couple of weeks.

In the end, then, despite all the anticipation and hoopla, the Ames straw poll didn't change the race very much at all. Romney is still the man to beat in Iowa. Tommy Thompson and Duncan Hunter weren't factors to begin with. Mike Huckabee's political death sentence got commuted - at least for the next few months. The odds on Sam Brownback's long shot bid appear to have gotten a bit longer. And, lastly, everyone is still waiting on big Fred to get in the game.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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