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A Tale of Two Winners

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AMES, IOWA -- It's hard to imagine a more different pair of winners than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The two emerged from the Aug. 11 GOP presidential straw poll in first and second place with 31.5 percent and 18.1 percent of the vote, respectively.

Romney is the wealthy, Harvard-educated son of a former auto industry CEO and Michigan governor. Huckabee had a considerably more modest upbringing; the son of a Hope, Ark., firefighter and part-time auto mechanic, graduate of Ouachita Baptist University and the first male in his family to graduate from high school. Both are winners and impressive, though in very different ways.

Romney critics are quick to argue that he beat a bunch of second-stringers, since his top rivals for the nomination didn't compete. Romney also spent far and away the most money, and there was a diminished turnout in Ames this year. According to the critics, these factors should take away from the luster of his victory.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Fred Thompson in fact did not compete in the straw poll. Giuliani and McCain both announced in early June that they would not participate. Thompson's oft-delayed entry into the race gives him a somewhat more plausible excuse, but still raises questions about his inability to get things going.

To say, however, that Romney won because his most formidable rivals did not enter the ring conveniently ignores the fact that both had gone into the building, walked up and looked into the ring at the competition and decided to skip the fight instead. Giuliani and McCain, particularly the latter, had hired Iowa operatives and started putting together efforts early on. Then they opted not to compete. Those decisions were made after Romney began surging in Iowa, both in terms of polling and organizational activity.

A glance at the graph of public polls among Iowa Republicans on pollster.com shows that beginning in the middle of last year, Romney began moving up in the polls. Since February, his movement has been significant while, at the same time, Giuliani and McCain have consistently dropped.

Early on, Romney invested heavily in organizational efforts (which is what the Iowa caucus is all about) and used television ads to make up for the name recognition disparity between himself and the two better-known front-runners. Giuliani and McCain didn't compete in the straw poll because they weren't doing well there, not because they decided it wasn't important.

When asked prior to the balloting what would constitute a Romney win, my response was that a clean Romney win would be his receiving over 30 percent with a 10-point spread between him and the second-place finisher. A 31.5 percent showing by Romney clears the first hurdle by a point and a half and a 13.4-percent margin over Huckabee seals the deal.

Historical data compiled by The Washington Post shows Romney's 31.5 percent ranks lower than former Vice President George H.W. Bush's 36 percent in 1987 and the Rev. Pat Robertson's 34 percent in 1991. However, it is a touch above then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush's 31 percent in 1999 and the 1995 tie between former Sens. Robert Dole and Phil Gramm, who each garnered 24 percent.

A 13.4-point margin is less than George H.W. Bush's 21-point win over former Texas Gov. John Connally in 1979, but more than George W. Bush's 10-point win over Steve Forbes in 1999, or Robertson's nine point win over Dole in 1987.

In short, a 31.5 percent, 13.4-point margin in an 11-way field isn't too shabby by any historical measure. And it does seem a little cheesy for those who declined to get into the ring to attempt to devalue a win.

Did Romney spend a lot of money? No question about it. Anticipating a spending war over the Iowa straw poll on the level of 1999 fight, Romney's campaign spent a lot early, but not out of line with what McCain's and Giuliani's campaigns were expected to spend at the time. It is also clear that the Romney campaign began to scale back that spending some time ago after the McCain implosion and after it was apparent that Giuliani and Fred Thompson would not compete.

A useful comparison might be a Romney breakfast event on the Thursday morning before the straw poll at a diner-by-day, blues-club-by-night establishment in the small town of Tama, with a Forbes event at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in the same town a few days before the 1999 straw poll. The Forbes event featured a level of overspending the likes of which I had never seen in a small-town, run-of-the-mill campaign stop.

"First-class" and "overkill" are two terms that come to mind to describe the Forbes event, while the Romney function seemed as if a politically savvy MBA sat down and planned a small-town Iowa Republican event, wanting to maximize support without wasting too much money. The Romney campaign looked like it was spending at the level a top-tier presidential campaign would, not much more or less.

The final argument against Romney is that because the overall vote total of 14,302 was considerably less than half of what many predicted, the win is not as significant because it was based on fewer votes (4,516) than anticipated. While NBC's First Read noted that the 2007 caucus was much stricter than in past years, requiring an Iowa driver's license or similar official identification showing Iowa residency, the diminished turnout also fits into a whole set of metrics showing diminished enthusiasm among Republicans nationally.

The percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Republicans is down rather substantially. Republicans' enthusiasm for their candidates, both those who did and those who did not compete in Ames, is less than Democrats' enthusiasm with their candidates.

Fundraising for the presidential, and House and Senate campaign committees is down on the Republican side. Even the huge fundraising advantage the Republican National Committee usually has over the Democratic National Committee is diminished this year. The Ames turnout would appear to be part of that pattern, demonstrating a GOP malaise rather than the inadequacy of any single Republican candidate.

While just about everyone anticipated that Romney would win the straw poll, the conventional wisdom was that Sen. Sam Brownback was most likely to come in second. Judging by how much organizational activity his campaign had, and the number of buses his team rented for hauling voters, it seemed like a pretty safe bet. Some even suggested that the immigration issue could launch an upset for Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo.

But, for Huckabee to place second with 18.1 percent, to Brownback's 15.3 and Tancredo's 13.7 percent, was a real shocker. According to First Read, Huckabee did not charter a single bus for hauling his 2,587 voters to the event, hence his great line, "I can't buy your vote, I don't have the money. I can't even rent you."

At a Huckabee event mid-morning in Indianola, south of Des Moines, about 60 to 70 people gathered in an outdoor pavilion in a city park. It was a Little League atmosphere with working class and lower middle-class Iowans and very few press in attendance. While the Romney event seemed more attended by senior citizens who were looking for a free breakfast and still shopping for a candidate, the Huckabee attendees seemed to be people already for him or ready to close the sale.

It would seem that one of two conclusions must be drawn. Either Huckabee had a far greater campaign organization than anyone seemed to know, based on people providing their own transportation and with minimal spending, or a whole lot of people were swayed by Huckabee's speech at the straw poll. Huckabee's speech was clearly the best of the bunch. Romney's speech was also impressive, but the assumption was that there were few unspoken-for people in the room and he was preaching to the choir.

Most people seemed to vote before the speeches began or at least before they entered the actual hall. The standard practice seemed to be for people to vote, then march in and demonstrate as their candidate was being introduced, listen and cheer, then leave upon the end of that candidate's speech. The ground floor was a rotating cheering section with the grandstands filled with folks who pretty much sat, watched and from time to time applauded or cheered.

After Huckabee's speech, I mentioned to several nearby that if the speeches came first and voting second, Huckabee would probably do very well, at least second place if not first. His vocal supporters were clearly outnumbered by most of the other campaigns.

In retrospect, there is probably some truth in both theories. Huckabee did have a cadre of self-motivated people who drove to Ames, didn't demonstrate and just voted for their candidate. But it may be that there were enough undecideds in the room, or wavering backers of another candidate who just changed their mind before casting their ballots. Between that and his great speech, there was enough for an upset second-place finish. I guess that's right -- I can offer no other explanation.

The biggest loser was Brownback, who staked a lot and lost. He had a substantial presence there, a ton of buses and certainly spent a lot more than Huckabee did. The question is whether Brownback stays in the race and whether Huckabee can take advantage of and consolidate the social and religious conservatives that he and Brownback were competing for.

From the beginning, Huckabee's strength has been that he was clearly from the social and evangelical movement, but had a strong potential for crossover appeal. He has the ability to reach beyond those ranks of "sacred" Republicans with a demeanor and message that seems non-threatening and non-judgmental to the more secular wing of the party.

While it is a bit sacrilegious to compare a former Baptist minister to a good bourbon or Tennessee whiskey, Huckabee has a smoothness that many others with a similar message do not have and don't even attempt.

Romney needed a big win to demonstrate that the early polls showing his lead among Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire were not an illusion, and he got that win. Does it mean that the nomination is over? Of course not. But after one battle for votes, he's won one, and that's more than Giuliani, McCain or Fred Thompson can say.

There were probably just two tickets out of the Hilton Coliseum in Ames, and Romney and Huckabee got them. Two others detoured around Ames and will have to be judged down the road. For now, consider this a four-way race.

 
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